By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Unable to bridge a gap over how many marijuana dispensaries the state should have, Florida lawmakers Friday failed to pass legislation that would have created a framework to carry out a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for wide variety of patients.
Implementation of the voter-approved amendment now rests in the hands of state health officials, who have been harshly criticized by legislators, patients, vendors — and judges — for their handling of the state’s current medical marijuana regulations.
“The Florida Legislature chose political gamesmanship over the will of 71 percent of voters,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of the group Florida for Care, who also served as campaign manager for the political committee that backed the amendment. “The will of the people was thwarted again today by Tallahassee politicians, but they can’t deny us forever. Florida for Care will continue fighting to implement the Constitution and bring a compassionate medical marijuana law to this state’s patients.”
A potential deal collapsed Friday evening after the House amended its proposal (HB 1397) to impose a cap of 100 retail outlets for each of the state’s medical marijuana operators, over the objections of some Democrats. The Senate had proposed a cap of 10, at least for now.
“I’m nervous that bouncing this back … will kill this bill and we will be stuck with a situation where the Department of Health has to implement Amendment 2, which can be disastrous for patients,” objected Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the bill’s sponsor, pointed out that lawmakers had hours to go before the session was scheduled to end at midnight.
“If the Senate can’t get this bill heard and decided in the next 3.5 hours, that problem’s with them, not with us,” Rodrigues, R-Estero, said.
The Senate ultimately did not take up the final House proposal.
The Senate bill sponsor, Rob Bradley, called the Legislature’s failure to act disappointing, saying he would rather lawmakers had control over the amendment’s rollout instead of the Department of Health.
“That’s a real concern. The Legislature at some point in time needs to have a bill that implements Amendment 2. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get it done this session,” Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican said. “We just couldn’t bridge the gap, and that just happens sometimes.”
Bradley started floating a plan to implement the amendment during committee hearings in January.
Republican leaders in the two chambers set out contrasting approaches, with the House favoring a more-restrictive proposal and the Senate approving a plan that had a more-aggressive schedule for increasing the number of operators responsible for growing, processing and distributing marijuana and derivative products.
In the days leading up to Friday’s end of the legislative session — for issues other than the budget — the two chambers ironed out most of their differences on that issue.
But a critical sticking point that emerged late in the session — caps on the number of dispensaries each medical marijuana operator would be allowed to have — ultimately proved too big a divide to resolve.
The Senate on Thursday modified its proposal (SB 406) to limit each marijuana operator a maximum of 10 retail locations. The number would have increased as the number of eligible patients registered in a statewide database grew.
But, while the House originally wanted fewer licensed marijuana operators in the state, the House’s bill would have allowed the purveyors to have an unlimited number of storefronts.
Critics maintained that an unlimited number of dispensaries would give an unfair advantage to the seven operators currently licensed by the state.
The caps were aimed not at limiting patient access but to ensure that “the golden ticket holders in the state will not be able to continue a monopoly moving forward,” Smith said during floor debate on the House’s proposal late Friday evening.
But Rodrigues maintained that a proliferation of dispensaries would ultimately benefit patients.
“Just because you’re first to the market, doesn’t mean you own the market,” Rodrigues said. “I believe the free market will work, and quality will rise to the top, and the public will respond to that.”
More than 71 percent of voters signed off on the constitutional amendment, largely bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, in November.
The constitutional amendment allows doctors to order marijuana as a treatment for patients with cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. Doctors also have the power to order marijuana for “other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated, and for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
A ban on smoking pot products was one of the most fiercely debated issues for patients and advocates, but House and Senate leaders refused to back down from the prohibition. The House did agree, however, to allow marijuana operators to sell pot in vaporizable or edible forms.
Morgan has threatened to sue the state over the issue. The amendment allows any Florida citizen to sue state officials if they fail to implement the amendment properly.
Lawmakers first created a framework for the state’s marijuana industry more than two years ago, when they legalized non-euphoric, or low-THC, cannabis for patients with epilepsy, severe muscle spasms or cancer.
Under the 2014 law, nurseries that had been in business for at least 30 years and grew at least 400,000 plants were eligible to apply for one of five licenses to grow, process and distribute marijuana and derivative products in different areas of the state.
The operators were supposed to start dispensing the low-THC products by Jan. 1, 2015, but a series of legal and administrative challenges delayed the rollout. As a result of the challenges, health officials were forced to issue two additional licenses.
Anticipating that the amendment would pass in November, lawmakers last year expanded the law to allow full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients.
“We’re disappointed that we weren’t able to change a lot of the policy to allow access to patients across the state,” said Igniting Florida President Nikki Fried, the lead lobbyist for San Felasco Nurseries, one of state’s seven current medical marijuana vendors. “We’re hoping the Department of Health will faithfully implement the constitutional amendment and the will of the people.”
Early this year, the Florida Department of Health began the rulemaking process to implement the amendment and held five workshops throughout the state to take testimony from the public.
“The department is committed to quickly moving through the rulemaking process to create a regulatory structure for Amendment 2,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in a statement.