Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Romano: Putting a price on compassion in medical marijuana debate

The Legislature got all warm and compassionate Monday. Which means you might want to check your pockets this morning.

Not to be too cynical, but that's often how things work in Tallahassee. When lawmakers say they are helping the less fortunate, they are actually pandering to the well-connected.

In this case, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill Monday that expands the use of medical marijuana for terminally ill patients in the state.

You remember medical marijuana, right? Back in 2014, the Legislature passed a bill making a noneuphoric brand of marijuana oil commonly known as Charlotte's Web available to children suffering from severe seizures. Nearly two years later, it still hasn't been made available to a single child.

Why is that?

It has a lot to do with the onerous — and highly suspicious — conditions the Legislature put on the cultivation of marijuana in Florida with that 2014 law. Lawmakers decided there would be only five growers in the entire state. And only nurseries with 30 years of uninterrupted service were allowed to apply.

Essentially, the good folks in Tallahassee rigged the books so only a handful of major farming groups would have a shot at what promises to be a very lucrative business.

Naturally, that led to lawsuits. And that has led to interminable delays for those helpless children who were supposed to be the motivation behind the legislation.

Given the opportunity to fix that problem this session, the Senate wimped out.

Instead of changing the rules that limit growers, and instead of adding medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, ALS and post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of eligible conditions, the Senate passed a watered-down bill under the guise that House lawmakers wouldn't go for anything else.

And then they congratulated themselves on their compassion.

"It's typical Florida Legislature bait-and-switch, telling you that they're helping people when they're really just benefiting particular companies," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who has been pushing medical marijuana legislation since 2011. "This was an opportunity to right some wrongs, and instead we codified the same mistakes we made two years ago."

This is not a suggestion that every legislator who has supported the bill in both the Senate and the House did so with ulterior motives. Some were clearly unhappy with the details, but felt any expansion of medical marijuana is a good thing.

What's troubling is the stench of hypocrisy. This is a state that has bent over backward in recent years to promote deregulation in the name of free enterprise. A state that believes the government shouldn't be involved in the health insurance marketplace.

And yet, among states with medical marijuana legislation, Florida is passing some of the most restrictive standards in the nation.

Think about it this way:

How would legislators feel about limiting the number of gun manufacturers in Florida?

"This is about to be come a billion-dollar industry in Florida, and the way we've set the table is going to have ramifications decades down the road," Clemens said. "We're setting up five growers to have a head start on everyone else once medical marijuana expands, and it will expand. By limiting the licenses and the supply, they're allowing these five growers to control the price."

How lucrative is this issue?

The Times' Michael Auslen reported last week that Costa Farms, one of the five anointed growers, had steered $270,000 into the political committees of some of the Legislature's major players in December and January.

So is it compassion? Or is it cash?

I say it's Tallahassee.

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