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Lawmakers to vote (finally) this week on medical marijuana deal

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers reached an agreement to make medical marijuana available in Florida, ending an impasse that derailed the issue last month.

Reached Tuesday night after weeks of closed-door negotiations, the deal affirms the will of 71 percent of voters who approved a constitutional amendment in November's election that allowed patients with a host of conditions access to the drug.

Lawmakers plan to vote on the issue by week's end. It could be one of the only bills to pass during a three-day special session that began Wednesday under a cloud of discord and fears that lawmakers may not accomplish their work on other issues.

"Our constitutional duty is to ensure the availability and safe use of medical marijuana in the manner prescribed by Florida voters," Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said in a statement. "This patient-first legislation will expand access to this medicine, while ensuring safety."

Some supporters of the amendment, while pleased that lawmakers reached consensus on legalization, criticized what wasn't included.

Take smoking. The bills (HB 5A, SB 8A) allow patients to buy and consume cannabis from licensed growers and consume it by "vaping," as edibles or as oils. But both prohibit smoking the drug.

John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer and possible gubernatorial candidate who bankrolled the Amendment 2 campaign, said that if the bill is signed into law, he plans to sue the state.

"Done is better than perfect and this is far from perfect," he wrote in a post on the website Medium. "I will be suing the state to allow smoke. It was part of my amendment."

If the legislation passes, lawmakers want the Department of Health to grant 10 new licenses, first to qualified nurseries that tried to get a license previously but were beaten out for the license by another company. They will join the existing seven growers that were licensed under a much more limited cannabis program the Legislature passed in 2014.

The legislation would also expand who could use the drug.

The amendment called for a wide array of qualifying medical conditions: cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or other, similar conditions. Lawmakers expanded the list to include terminally ill patients, regardless of their illness, as well as chronic pain that was caused by one of the conditions in the amendment.

Neither the Legislature's proposal nor the constitutional amendment allows patients to access medical marijuana based on chronic pain alone.

"Our obligation right now is to look at what's in the amendment and to make sure that we have a law that accurately reflects it and gives access to those patients whose illnesses are enumerated," said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

Patients would be allowed to buy a 70-day supply of cannabis and would have to visit their doctor once every 30 weeks. Each grower would be limited to opening 25 dispensaries.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott cleared the way for lawmakers to vote on the legislation, which has broad support among the rank-and-file members of the House and Senate.

"It is the role of the Florida Legislature to determine how to best implement this approved constitutional amendment," Scott said in a statement.

This is the second time lawmakers tried to reach a deal legalizing medical marijuana. Negotiations broke down last month over how many storefront dispensaries each licensed grower could open.

This time, the House agreed to a limit of 25 and agreed to having a separate cap for each region of the state. Senators pushed for the caps, arguing they will help prevent the first people allowed into the market from becoming too powerful.

But there's a catch: Caps are set to increase by five for every 100,000 patients registered to use marijuana, and license holders can sell unused dispensary slots to one another. The entire cap provision expires in April 2020.

"It accomplishes (the Senate's) goal of restraining the growth initially to see how the market will develop," said House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

Still, the option to sell dispensary slots could be good news for some of the companies that hold a license already. One such company, Surterra, could make $138 million by 2021 based on a plan to open 55 dispensaries, according to a document by potential investors obtained last month by the Times/Herald.

Pro-medical marijuana activists generally praised the Legislature for reaching agreement, even while pointing out that it still has flaws.

"The bill is not perfect, but whatever flaws there are can be addressed in a future session," said Ben Pollara, one of the men behind the constitutional amendment and executive director of the advocacy group Florida for Care. "The critical need is for the House and Senate to send a bill to the governor so that patient access can expand in Florida."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Lawmakers to vote (finally) this week on medical marijuana deal 06/07/17 [Last modified: Thursday, June 8, 2017 12:38am]
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