A legislative panel agreed Thursday to boost the budget of the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use by $13.29 million to help pay for issuing new licenses and covering the costs of ongoing litigation.
The Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which includes House and Senate members, unanimously approved $7.34 million to help the office process an estimated 400 applications that are expected as companies compete for four potentially lucrative medical-marijuana licenses.
The office, which is part of the Department of Health, estimates each application will cost $18,354 to process. The office has already approved 14 licenses, with the four new licenses triggered by a provision in state law that allows an increase when the patient registry exceeds 100,000 people.
Lawmakers also approved $1.5 million to pay for ongoing lawsuits against the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. Courtney Coppola, deputy director of the office, said the agency is currently facing 11 lawsuits, and she estimated the office has had “nearly double” that number since 2015.
Another $3.4 million approved by lawmakers will help develop a computer software system to track the distribution of medical marijuana “from seed to sale.”
The 24-hour, statewide tracking system is required by law, with Coppola saying the office is relying on data from the individual “medical marijuana treatment centers,” which are licensed to grow, process and sell cannabis. She said the new system will provide a uniform means of monitoring the distribution system.
The budget adjustment also included $1.67 million to pay Veritec Solutions for providing patient identification cards and for operating a call center. Another $305,000 will be used to upgrade the patient registry system.
Of the amount added Thursday, $5.6 million will be immediately available to the agency, while $7.7 million will be held in reserve until needed.
The funding boost came less than a month after the start of the 2018-2019 fiscal year and after lawmakers only included $935,400 for the Office of Medical Marijuana Use in the state budget. The overall total costs approved Thursday were about $14.2 million, which combines the $935,400 in the budget with the $13.29 million increase.
The need for additional money also reflects controversy and criticism that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has not moved quickly enough to implement a medical-marijuana program, which got its start in 2014 when lawmakers legalized non-euphoric cannabis.
The debate intensified in 2016, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. The Legislature passed a law in 2017 to carry out the amendment and dealt with issues such as increasing the number of licenses for medical-marijuana operators.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said lawmakers have funded “every single” request made by the medical-marijuana office.
“I think many of us, on a bipartisan basis, are frustrated by the pace that the law has been implemented,” Bradley said. “The law itself works and is a solid piece of legislation. The implementation has not proceeded as quickly as many of us would like.”
House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, questioned why many of the costs raised in the special budget-amendment process were not part of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use’s budget request during the regular 2018 session.
She said most of the costs were known “or anticipated for quite a while,” including payments to companies that had contracts with the agency.
“Why are we using a process that is essentially meant for fixing mistakes and dealing with, I guess, what we would call surprises, to fund the implementation of a constitutional amendment that 71 percent of Florida voters approved almost two years ago?” Cruz asked.