By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
House and Senate leaders might be divided on issues that forced them to return to the Capitol this week, but they’re in agreement about pot.
Legislation to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana is on the fast track, after Gov. Rick Scott added the issue to a three-day special session focused on funding for education and economic development.
The Legislature failed to approve a medical-marijuana measure during the regular session that ended last month, after a schism between House and Senate Republican leaders over how many retail outlets the state’s marijuana operators should be allowed to run.
But amid growing demands that lawmakers revisit the issue during the special session, legislative leaders this week struck a compromise on a marijuana plan. Meanwhile, they continued Thursday to have differences on issues such as details of an economic-development package.
The compromise (SB 8-A, HB 5A) would add 10 new medical-marijuana operators to the seven vendors already operating in Florida. The Department of Health would have to grant the new licenses by Oct. 3. The highly coveted licenses go to businesses that are responsible for growing, processing and distributing pot.
The vendors would each be allowed to operate up to 25 dispensaries — and possibly more — throughout Florida. The maximum number of retail outlets in each of five regions of the state would be based on population.
Marijuana operators also could purchase dispensary “slots” from other vendors, meaning they could potentially exceed the 25-storefront cap.
The cap on dispensaries — which would end in 2020 — and the number of medical-marijuana operator licenses would increase as the number of patients eligible for the cannabis treatment grows.
The Department of Health has issued licenses after lawmakers in 2014 passed a measure that allowed non-euphoric cannabis for some patients, such as children with severe forms of epilepsy. Lawmakers in 2016 allowed full-blown marijuana for terminally ill patients, but the November constitutional amendment legalized pot for patients with a wide range of conditions.
Initially, the department granted five licenses in 2015, and two more were added as the result of legal challenges. Under the new legislation, the health department would have until Aug. 3 to issue new licenses to applicants who lost when agency officials granted the state’s first five licenses. Those new licenses would go to applicants who scored within a point of the “winning” applicant and to those who were involved in legal or administrative challenges.
The new licenses would go to Arcadia-based Sun Bulb Nurseries; Jacksonville- based Loop’s Nursery; Tornello Landscape, also known as “3 Boys Farm,” and Plants of Ruskin, both based in Ruskin; and Treadwell Nursery in Eustis, according to Department of Health staff.
Health officials would have until Oct. 3 to grant five additional licenses, including one for a member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. The measure also would require health officials to give preference for up to two licenses for applicants currently or previously involved in “the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses,” a component that raised eyebrows during discussion of the Senate proposal Thursday.
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has played a key role for the past three years in the development of medical marijuana legislation, told the Senate Appropriations Committee the preference was included as a way to assist a declining citrus industry, which has been devastated by citrus greening.
But Senate budget chief Jack Latvala wasn’t satisfied.
“A citrus processing plant is not the same kind of facility by any stretch of the imagination as a marijuana cultivation facility,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, said.
Later Thursday, Bradley was asked about the citrus industry issue during a discussion of the bill on the Senate floor.
“Some of those old-line facilities and businesses are deteriorating much like the city of Detroit,” Bradley said. “This would allow them to have an opportunity to redesign or repurpose their facilities.”
The inclusion of the citrus industry in the current measure is in line with lawmakers’ goal of giving Florida businesses preferential treatment in the marijuana industry, Bradley said.
“It is what it is,” he concluded.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, tried but failed to strip the citrus provision from the bill.
“It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. You and I know that,” Brandes said before the amendment was voted down. “We should not be carving in one specific industry. There are industries that go in and out of business all the time.”
An even more controversial component of the measure — whether to allow patients to smoke marijuana products — isn’t new but was the subject of debate Thursday in the House and Senate. The proposal would ban smoking medical marijuana, though it would allow vaping.
Supporters of Amendment 2 insist that the constitutional amendment included a provision that permits smoking — by laying out where the activity is banned.
“Nothing in this section shall require any accommodation of any on-site medical use of marijuana in any correctional institution or detention facility or place of education or employment, or of smoking medical marijuana in any public place,” the amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in November, reads.
Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the ballot initiative, has threatened to sue the state over the smoking ban.
But state Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who was instrumental in passage of the 2014 law authorizing low-THC marijuana for certain patients, questioned why drafters of the amendment could not have been “more clear” regarding the smoking issue.
Edwards said proponents are using social media — including a #nosmokeisajoke Twitter campaign — to pressure lawmakers to approve smoking, but the question of what the amendment actually requires remains unanswered.
“It’s very easy to get sidetracked and come up with hashtags and campaigns,” Edwards, a lawyer, said. “I do not want us to be sued. Nobody here wants to be sued because you know what? A lawsuit benefits one attorney, one firm. It does not help us get this to the patients quicker.”
Edwards asked constitutional law scholars who believe the amendment expressly provides for smoking to email her.
“Please send me this, and tell me how that one sentence is an express mandate to all of us,” she said, “because if I’m wrong, we need to fix this.”
But Rep. Evan Jenne, another Broward County Democrat, said he believed that Floridians who supported the amendment believed they were voting to allow smokable marijuana.
Lawmakers will be forced to revisit the issue after getting sued, Jenne predicted.
In the meantime, unhappy constituents will “read the riot act” to legislators when they return home, he said.
“Folks are going to get an earful,” Jenne said.