The House on Wednesday froze $2.1 million in salary and expenses at the Department of Health for failing to respond to concerns raised by a joint legislative committee over a trio of emergency rules relating to medical marijuana.
There was no debate when Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, tagged the amendment onto the House's proposed health care spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year Wednesday morning.
But Brodeur told The News Service of Florida that he sponsored the amendment because the department has not followed the Legislature's direction when it comes to medical marijuana.
"There have been a number of instances where they have missed deadlines and implementation of the medical marijuana law. They have yet to respond to a number of letters sent to them on behalf of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee. And so now I think we'll get their attention that they need to respond to those," he said.
While the Senate budget doesn't include the freeze, Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Bradley told reporters Wednesday evening that he supports the House's move and that the department needs to move ahead with properly promulgating rules related to a medical marijuana law passed last year.
The Department of Health has been slow to roll out regulations required to implement both the use of low-THC, or non-euphoric, medical marijuana as well as traditional marijuana for medical purposes, something voters overwhelmingly approved in 2016.
The delays have not been without consequences. The Florida Senate in 2016 refused to reconfirm former Department of Health Secretary John Armstrong, due in part to the delays in making low-THC marijuana available for use.
Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Christian Bax and other health officials have blamed the delays on legal and administrative challenges.
Since early October, the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee has sent correspondence to Bax and Amanda Bush, a senior attorney with the Department of Health, flagging concerns about the marijuana regulations. The concerns focused on emergency rules the department tried to implement, emergency rules the department failed to implement, and proposed rules to replace the emergency rules.
More than three months after the first letter was sent, Bax's office still hasn't responded to the letters or to a follow-up request for information following Bax's appearance before the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee in December.
The oversight committee, comprised of five senators and six state representatives, reviews rules proposed by agencies to ensure that the regulations are authorized by state law.
The News Service of Florida obtained copies of ten letters sent by the committee to Bax's office between October and January identifying concerns with emergency rules.
For example, the committee's chief attorney, Marjory C. Halloday, sent an 18-page letter to Bush identifying potential concerns about the range of penalties the department would assess against medical marijuana treatment centers for violating the rules. The letter, dated October 9, also questioned why the rule used the term "medical cannabis," when "medical marijuana" is used in the law.
Joint Administrative Procedures Committee Coordinator Kenneth Plante also sent a two-page letter to Bax citing concerns with a rule that established standards for medical marijuana treatment centers and their production of edible products, advising that the law required the department to establish an emergency rule about edible products before moving ahead with a permanent rule.
Plante also sent a two-page letter to Bax on December 18 asking for information about pesticides and for copies of standards and protocols used by laboratories that contract with medical marijuana treatment centers.
After receiving no response to the committee's litany of concerns, Halloday earlier this month sent three letters to the Department of Health telling Bush that Halloday expects the committee staff to recommend that the committee members object to the three emergency rules when they meet on Monday.
Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said the agency is "working diligently to respond to the many inquiries from JAPC and will meet with the committee on Monday."
"(We) hope to address their concerns so that we can all move forward in the best interest of Florida's patients," Gambineri said in an email.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran told reporters Wednesday evening he supports Brodeur's effort.
"I think anytime we can exert influence in trying to get things moving the way they should, if we have that opportunity, we ought to take it so long as it's the right thing to do," Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said.