Florida health officials are holding to a deadline next month for the state's first medical marijuana businesses to seek permission to begin growing non-euphoric cannabis, even with hearings in license challenges stacked up through mid-summer.
Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said Monday that five dispensing organizations --- selected by a three-member panel last year to grow, process and distribute low-THC marijuana --- must submit requests for cultivation authorization by Feb. 7, the first deadline in a process more than a year behind schedule due to previous legal wrangling.
But frustrated lawmakers who were instrumental in passage of a 2014 law that legalized low-THC marijuana for patients with severe muscle spasms or cancer are exploring options to speed up the process of getting the cannabis products on the market.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, whose committee is scheduled to get an update from the Department of Health on Wednesday, said he is "interested in creating an alternative administrative procedural system to deal with challenges" to the licenses already awarded by the agency.
"This has gone on too long," he said, blaming the losing applicants for dragging out the process.
Thirteen challenges to the licenses have been divided among five administrative law judges, with hearings in the cases slated from March through the end of July, according to documents filed with the Division of Administrative Hearings.
None of the challengers has asked for an injunction to prevent the process from moving forward, and health officials are continuing with next month's deadline, Gambineri said.
But the agency's decision to keep the process moving despite the possibility that the licenses could be overturned has created angst for winners and losers in the highly competitive medical marijuana arena in Florida, with millions of dollars in start-up and operational costs at stake.
"This has put many people in a very awkward situation," Louis Rotundo, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association and has a minor interest in at least two applicants, said. "Millions of dollars are at risk, potentially, with no guarantee that, at the end of this process, you'll still be the license holder."
It is unknown whether any of the losing applicants will seek to halt the process before the Feb. 7 deadline, but it is almost certain that none of the five winners will do so, despite the uncertainty. While the low-THC form of cannabis is a relatively limited market, companies with the licenses could have a toehold for more-lucrative sales of medical marijuana if a broad ballot initiative passes in November.
Southwest region winner Alpha Foliage, affiliated with Surterra Therapeutics, applied Monday for authorization to begin growing. In a press release, the company said it plans to have cannabis products on the shelves as early as June.
Privately, some of the lawyers involved in the process are questioning whether the department even has the authority to move forward until the administrative complaints are resolved.
The administrative law judges have scheduled hearings during which they will conduct a "comparative review" of the applications, essentially recreating the process the three-member panel underwent to select one dispensing organization in each of five regions throughout the state. The judges could overturn the decisions made by the department's selection panel, which in turn would likely spark an appeal, meaning the legal challenges could drag on for months, if not years.
Aside from tweaking laws governing administrative procedures, lawmakers could appoint a special master to oversee the application process, said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who pushed for the 2014 law, which passed after heavy lobbying by parents of children with severe forms of epilepsy.
"There are benefits and drawbacks to each of those concepts. What we intend to do is evaluate where we are and how to get out of the morass of the (Division of Administrative Hearings) process that is not an attractive way to resolve these disputes," Gaetz said Monday.
Changing the administrative procedures while the challenges are ongoing could be politically problematic for lawmakers, who could be perceived as having their fingers on the scales in an effort to tip the outcome in favor of certain applicants.
"I'm less concerned about where my finger is and more concerned about getting medical cannabis to people who need it without just going around and around indefinitely," Gaetz said.