TALLAHASSEE — An anti-drug group opposed to medical marijuana is helping craft Florida laws on pot's expanded use — a cause its founders tried and failed to defeat during last year's elections.
The St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation is one of several anti-drug groups tied to conservative financiers Mel and Betty Sembler that opposed constitutional amendments legalizing medical marijuana in 2014 and 2016. The Semblers, who founded Drug Free America, gave $1 million for a political committee called Drug Free Florida, which fought against last year's amendment that provided greater access to the drug.
Yet despite 71 percent of voters supporting medical marijuana, their foundation is having a say in the legislation that will determine the drug's availability. Drug Free America's executive director, Calvina Fay, lauded current legislation during a March meeting, thanking the House sponsor for including so many of the group's suggestions in the bill.
The group and its lobbying arm, Save Our Society from Drugs, sent state lawmakers a list of suggestions that it says will prevent Florida's medical cannabis program from being abused. About half of the 43 suggestions made it into HB 1397 pushed by the Florida House's majority leader, Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.
According to a review of the list, the overall effect of the recommendations would be to make it harder to access medical marijuana.
The role Sembler's group is playing troubles those who support the drug's medical use.
"The suggestion that Drug Free America should be involved in the implementing language is absolutely ludicrous," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care and one of the writers of amendment. "If your whole goal is to say 'no' to something why should we take your advice in implementing it?"
In an op-ed published last week in the Tampa Bay Times, Pollara said the House bill is contrary to the will of the voters. To make matters worse for Pollara, his organization sent suggested language to the House that did not make it into the bill.
Rodrigues said no single group is influencing the bill and that he considered recommendations and suggested language from groups with a wide assortment of views. Records kept by his staff show he met with at least 70 cannabis lobbyists and activist groups since December.
"I would say there are 40 or more organizations or individuals who could look at our bill and say, 'We helped write that bill,' and say it with a straight face," Rodrigues said.
Whether those groups support medical marijuana didn't play a role in how he viewed them, he said.
"The organizations I could care less about," Rodrigues said. "What I'm interested in is the policy."
Chief among the Drug Free America recommendations that made it into Rodrigues' bill is one requiring doctors to have a three-month relationship with their patients before recommending marijuana to them. Patients and advocates say this needlessly delays treatment.
Another Drug Free America suggestion is a key feature of both House and Senate bills: The prohibition of smoking as a way for patients to consume marijuana. There's broad consensus in Tallahassee supporting the smoking ban and has been for several years. The ban is included in the Senate bill (SB 406) though its sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he didn't meet with Drug Free America.
Chronic pain is another significant feature of the legislation. Patients who complain of chronic pain, but have no other medical conditions that would qualify them for the drug, likely won't be allowed to use it.
Drug Free America worries that giving marijuana based on chronic pain alone could be a pathway to abuse of the drug, but the prohibition wasn't among a list of recommendations the group said it provided to Rodrigues and other lawmakers.
Arizona, California and New York allow patients with chronic pain to use the drug, which legalization advocates say is less harmful than opioids like heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone.
Drug Free America wanted a requirement that two physicians would be needed to recommend cannabis to a minor. It also wanted state-funded campaigns on drug prevention and impaired driving. Both are in Rodrigues' bill, which puts $3 million into anti-drug campaigns.
The group also wanted strict standards on edible marijuana. Rodrigues' bill banned it altogether.
Fay says she is happy the House took up some of her organization's suggestions but that it is "an absurd allegation" to suggest Drug Free America was the driving force behind the House bill.
"Of course we didn't write the bill," she said. "There are some people that are whining that we would even weigh in on this, which is ridiculous. That's what we do: We are a drug policy and prevention organization."
The Semblers created Drug Free America in 1995 after a controversial drug treatment program they founded called Straight Inc. was shut down following accusations of abusing teen participants and holding them against their will. The foundation does not engage in treatment but instead focuses on advocacy and shaping drug policy.
Though Drug Free America has publicly said it supports Rodrigues' bill, some of the stringent rules it wanted to see did not make it into the legislation.
The group wanted to ban the use of cannabis within 1,500 feet of schools and playgrounds and on state university campuses, limit the potency of products that dispensaries can sell and force doctors to give women a pregnancy test before recommending marijuana.
Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.