Florida regulators have done far too little to make voter-approved medical marijuana widely available for patients suffering from chronic illnesses. A circuit court judge in Tallahassee ruled last week there is a price for that obstruction, finding that in the absence of state regulations, Tampa’s Joe Redner is legally entitled to grow his own pot for medical use. The ruling applies only to Redner, who has lung cancer. But it’s a victory for medical marijuana patients and their advocates who should not have to wait for a stubborn bureaucracy to get access to medical care that the Florida Constitution allows.
Medical marijuana passed in 2016 with 71 percent of the vote, despite little support and some outright opposition from the state’s elected officials. The Legislature showed no urgency in writing a law to implement the amendment, needing a special session to get it done. Now the foot-dragging is at the Department of Health, which missed its own deadline for creating regulations for patients, doctors and suppliers as prescribed by the amendment. The state’s nearly 100,000 qualifying patients have a difficult time accessing the drug; there are not enough doctors licensed to give marijuana authorizations; and the backlog of applications, for patient ID cards, doctors’ certifications and dispensary licenses, is mounting. It’s hard not to see the gridlock as deliberate.
That procrastination has cost the state a round in court, as Leon Circuit Judge Karen Gievers cited the lack of any guiding regulations in finding for Redner, the well-known and politically active strip club owner. Redner, a 77-year-old vegan, is recovering from lung cancer and uses marijuana in an emulsified juice form, as advised by his doctor, to help keep the disease in remission. Juicing uses the pulp of marijuana plants, which are not sold in state-licensed dispensaries. Redner sued over the Department of Health’s contention that the Florida Constitution prohibits him from growing his own cannabis for personal use.
The department would be hard-pressed to point to any such prohibition in the text of the Constitution — it’s not there. "Nothing in the Amendment authorizes the Department of Health (or any other part of Florida’s government) to ignore the rights of qualifying patients to access the medical marijuana treatment to which they are entitled under the Florida Constitution, or to exclude any method by which qualifying patients may take their medicine," the judge wrote. She also pointed to the lack of a regulation defining a patient’s "adequate supply" in blessing the daily 8 ounces of emulsified marijuana that Redner’s doctor recommends. Though the ruling is under a stay as the state appeals, it does say that Redner is allowed to grow his own medical pot.
The court order does not fling open the doors for any patient in Florida to start a cannabis crop, but state regulators should take the decision as a wake-up call that their failure to faithfully enact a voter-approved amendment has consequences. The next battlefront is a lawsuit brought by Orlando attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the amendment drive and challenges a ban on smokable marijuana in state law. Morgan claims the provision is unconstitutional; indeed, nowhere does the Constitution ban patients from smoking marijuana for medical purposes.
Gievers wrote that the Department of Health’s role in helping Floridians suffering from chronic illness is to "ensure the availability and safe use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients." Instead, the state has delayed making the drug easily available and arbitrarily tried to limit the ways patients can access it and the forms it can take. The foot-dragging is an affront to Floridians who voted overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana and a cruelty toward patients in pain. Joe Redner’s victory in court heralds that the state’s stalling won’t work much longer.