Popular with voters, medical marijuana finds few champions in Tallahassee

Setting rules for a medical marijuana industry is not a top priority in Tallahassee.
No legislation to govern medical marijuana has been filed yet, with the amendment passed by voters set to take effect Jan. 3. Associated Press
No legislation to govern medical marijuana has been filed yet, with the amendment passed by voters set to take effect Jan. 3.Associated Press
Published December 2 2016
Updated December 2 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Medical marijuana's implementation is turning out to be a slow burn.

More than 6 million Floridians voted in November to allow patients with conditions like cancer and HIV to use marijuana — nearly 2 million more than President-elect Donald Trump's state total.

But such overwhelming support for the state constitutional amendment has not translated into urgency in the capital.

Setting rules governing a new medical marijuana industry is not a top priority for the newly elected leaders of the Legislature, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran. Gov. Rick Scott has largely avoided weighing in on the issue.

"All I'd say on that is that we're going to honor the will of the voters, we're going to protect the Constitution, and we're going to protect the people's state of Florida," said Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

This, at least, is a point of agreement between Corcoran and Negron, whose relationship is already marked by sharp divisions over the state budget and rules for lobbyists.

What that means for state policy, however, is uncertain. Despite the amendment's popularity, neither Corcoran nor Negron mentioned medical marijuana at the ceremonial organizational session late last month until reporters pressed them for details.

Corcoran, who opposed medical marijuana on the ballot, is an outspoken supporter of free-market public policy, particularly in health care, but he has not elaborated on the specifics of how that would play into creating a tightly regulated industry for medical marijuana.

Negron, R-Stuart, remained silent on Amendment 2 through the campaign.

A trusted ally, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was an early supporter of medical marijuana and plans to file a medical marijuana bill in the Senate. Brandes' proposal would open the market to competition among a large number of growers and sellers.

Negron echoes Corcoran, saying he wants to implement the amendment "verbatim" and that he plans to follow the voters' wishes "fully both in letter and in spirit."

No marijuana legislation has been filed yet, but few bills of any kind have. The annual legislative session does not begin until March 7.

Already, moneyed interests are hiring lobbyists to influence the outcome.

Growers licensed under a small medical cannabis program already in state law have registered to lobby the House. They have limited customers under the current program, which allows certain patients, like children with severe epilepsy, to use a strain of marijuana that doesn't cause a euphoric high. It also allows the terminally ill to use full-strength pot.

Other companies that may apply for future licenses to grow have hired advocates, too.

Florida for Care, the group behind Amendment 2, this week hired lobbyists of its own.

"We want to be very reasonable . . . and to do everything in our power to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the group.

Florida for Care argues that voters intended to allow marijuana as treatment for more conditions, including cancer and HIV, and to expand the industry to include more competition from more growers. But the group's No. 1 goal next year will be passing a law that avoids a court battle, Pollara said.

The Florida Department of Health, which is charged with overseeing medical marijuana, plans to begin writing regulations Jan. 3, when Amendment 2 goes into effect. It's the same agency that took more than two years to put into place the limited medical cannabis program passed by lawmakers in 2014.

Health officials have six months from that date to approve rules for the program, but a declaration on its website further complicates matters.

The page says that "the expanded qualifying medical conditions will become effective on January 3, 2017."

Asked for details, health department officials have been unclear about what that means.

Yes, the added list of conditions goes into effect next month, spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said. However, she noted, "the Florida Department of Health, physicians, dispensing organizations, and patients remain bound by existing law and rule."

The laws already on the books limit full-strength marijuana to terminally ill patients and don't include the more wide-ranging set of conditions the voters passed.

Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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