By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Florida voters’ overwhelming approval of a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for a broad swath of patients may have spurred a green rush into the state by investors eager to cash in on what will soon be the nation’s second-largest pot market.
More than 71 percent of voters approved Amendment 2, “Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions,” on Tuesday.
The size of Florida’s new market is sparking an influx of interest from investors and operators seeking to get in on the ground floor of the state’s pot industry, which had already started because of legislation allowing more-limited medical marijuana.
“I’ve gotten 13 calls over the last two days from people who want to know how to get into the business or where the opportunities are,” lobbyist Jeff Sharkey said Thursday. “It’s a remarkable spike in interest that obviously is a result of the passage of Amendment 2. It’s been rather dramatic.”
This year was the second time Florida voters weighed in on the pot measure. A similar proposal narrowly failed to capture the 60 percent approval required for passage in 2014.
As a result of a law passed this year, full-strength pot is already being grown and distributed legally in Florida, but its use is limited to patients who are terminally ill.
The success of the constitutional amendment raises questions about the future of Florida’s industry and sets the stage for more legal battles over opportunities to gain entree to one of the country’s most lucrative markets in a multibillion-dollar industry.
“Without a doubt, the passage of Amendment 2 has created an incredibly large market for medical marijuana that interests from outside the state that don’t already have a license are going to be interested in participating in,” said Jon Costello, a lobbyist who has represented firms seeking a foothold in Florida’s pot industry. “The question now becomes what entities outside Florida are going to come and start participating politically to try and open the market.”
Lawmakers will have to deal with the expansion of pot during the legislative session that begins in March, setting up what could be an industry food fight because the amendment appears to be in conflict with several provisions in Florida’s existing laws regarding the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Currently, six “dispensing organizations” have licenses to grow, process and distribute marijuana and cannabis-related products. Representatives of the dispensing organizations met Wednesday with state Office of Compassionate Use Executive Director Christian Bax to discuss the impact of Tuesday’s election on their industry.
Bax told them that the status quo would continue, at least for now, according to several executives who attended the meeting.
Fewer than 700 patients were registered to receive the current marijuana products as of Wednesday, according to state health officials, who estimated at least 500,000 patients would be eligible for the treatment under the constitutional amendment approved Tuesday.
“I anticipate that there’s going to be a robust discussion about the number of licenses that are necessary to meet the demand of the marketplace. That’s certainly an issue that we need to study and address, if necessary,” Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
Bradley was instrumental in the passage of Florida’s existing laws that authorized non-euphoric marijuana for a limited number of patients and full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients.
In 2014, the Legislature authorized the low-THC treatment in part to thwart that year’s proposed constitutional amendment that ultimately did not pass. Proponents tweaked the 2014 proposal to address concerns and brought it back to voters this year.
Orlando attorney John Morgan, who helped bankroll both initiatives, said Tuesday’s 71 percent approval was the largest margin for any marijuana-related measure in the country.
Morgan said he expects lawmakers to quickly address the measure during the 2017 session, given the mandate handed down by voters.
That would be a contrast to the rollout of non-euphoric medical marijuana in Florida, first authorized by lawmakers in 2014 but which only made its way to patients this year because of challenges to rules governing the industry and contests over the entities who were awarded licenses.
“What’s going to push this faster this time, when it gets to Tallahassee, is the money that’s waiting at the door to get this stuff grown and marketed. That’s going to be different,” Morgan, who — with his law firm — spent more than $6.5 million on making medical marijuana legal — told reporters Wednesday.
Anticipating that Amendment 2 would pass, the GOP-dominated Legislature this spring expanded the law to allow full-strength pot for terminally ill patients. Under the new law, the already-approved dispensing organizations are allowed to grow the full-strength cannabis.
The 2016 law also requires the Department of Health to award three more licenses when more than 250,000 patients have registered for the treatment.
It is unknown how long it will take for that many patients to sign up for the treatment, but proponents of Amendment 2 believe that the estimated 500,000 patients who would be eligible will require even more licenses than that anticipated by the state law.
The constitutional amendment provides for “reasonable access” to the marijuana treatment by patients, which would almost certainly require more than nine providers in a state as large as Florida, according to Ben Pollara, who managed the Amendment 2 campaign.
“There are numerous points, both big picture and technical, where there are clear and present conflicts between the current statute and the amendment. If nothing else, those things need to be worked out,” Pollara said in a telephone interview Wednesday.