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As clock ticks down, lawmakers struggle to close pot deal

Sen. Rob Bradley, R- Orange Park, shares a laugh with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate. Brandes said he's frustrated with how medical marijuana has moved through the Legislature this year, which has been sponsored in the Senate by Bradley. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

Sen. Rob Bradley, R- Orange Park, shares a laugh with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate. Brandes said he's frustrated with how medical marijuana has moved through the Legislature this year, which has been sponsored in the Senate by Bradley. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

TALLAHASSEE — With one day left for the Florida Legislature to act, lawmakers say they are close to a deal on medical marijuana.

Thursday evening, the Senate passed sweeping legislation to implement a system that would allow patients with a wide array of conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder, to buy and use marijuana.

While the language in the Senate bill, which passed 31-7, is similar to what the House passed earlier this week, several key differences threaten to derail the process.

For one, the House wants marijuana to be tax-free, which the Senate doesn't. And the Senate restricts the number of dispensaries each marijuana company can open to prevent storefronts opening "on every corner."

"If this doesn't work out, this'll be the reason," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, referring to the limits on dispensaries.

The number of new growers that can be licensed is also a key difference between the bills. The House would hand a license to SunBulb in Southwest Florida. The Senate would give licenses to Treadwell Nursery in Central Florida and Loop's Nursery in Northeast Florida.

What is clear is this: Lawmakers don't want to allow smoking but are fine with "vaping" and edibles, and they have tried to make it easier for doctors to become certified in recommending cannabis and for patients to obtain a recommendation from a new doctor.

Lawmakers came to Tallahassee with a mandate to legalize the drug from more than 71 percent of voters who passed Amendment 2.

The stakes are high to pass a bill before adjourning for the weekend today: If lawmakers don't reach an agreement, and if the Florida Department of Health doesn't issue its own regulations by July, any Floridian could sue the state.

On Wednesday, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who bankrolled the constitutional amendment, threatened to sue the state over one of the points of agreement between the House and Senate: a ban on smoking medical pot.

"I will sue and I will win!" Morgan tweeted, along with a link to a Times/Herald story about the latest House deal. The amendment, he contends, allowed for smoking.

"THIS is why politicians are despised," tweeted Morgan, who is mulling a run for governor in 2018.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was an early supporter of medical marijuana and proposed legislation that would have more broadly opened up the marketplace, which was abandoned in favor of Bradley's legislation early in the legislative session. Brandes said that the provisions moving through the Legislature now won't do what the voters wanted and that the issue may as well be left open to the courts.

"My concern is you have a major piece of public policy that hasn't had public discussion," Brandes said. "As an insider, it's frustrating to watch. I can only imagine how as somebody on the outside watching, it is incredibly frustrating."

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.

As clock ticks down, lawmakers struggle to close pot deal 05/04/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 4, 2017 10:34pm]
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