The Florida Senate affirmed the right to smoke medical pot Thursday afternoon.
Senate Bill 182 made it through its last stop during the day’s session, with just eight days to spare before a deadline set by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The 40-member Senate vote was 34-4, with two legislators not voting. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was not present for the vote.
DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators don’t by the March 15 deadline he set that day, the governor said he will do so with litigation. The deadline is a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican. That’s why it was voted out on only the third day of the 60-day session.
The House bill, a committee bill put forward by Health and Human Services, reported favorably out of Appropriations on Feb. 21. It has not yet been heard on the floor.
Questions about the program’s fundamental elements were a recurring theme in floor debate, but the bill sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, told Senators they need not worry.
“Most people in this room haven’t studied medical cannabis since college,” he said.
In 2016, about 71 percent of voting Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. While the 2017 bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, it made smoking it illegal.
The provision, which became known as the “smoking ban,” was challenged in circuit court in July 2017. In May 2018, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers declared the smoking ban unconstitutional, but the Department of Health appealed the ruling later that month. After DeSantis announced his intent to drop the appeal should the Legislature not act to remove the smoking ban, both parties filed a motion to stay the appeal until this month.
Brandes’ bill mainly adds the word “smoking” to the medical marijuana constitutional amendment and allows patients to receive up to 2.5 ounces of the drug every 35 days as recommended by their qualified doctor. It prohibits smoking in public and in areas like drug-free workplaces.
The bill requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under 18 and deletes a provision that prohibits a medical marijuana treatment center from selling products like pipes, bongs or rolling papers. Another amendment passed to allow patients to buy those products at third-party locations if they are using marijuana for medical use.
The bill also establishes a Medical Marijuana Research and Education Board to direct the operations of a research consortium established by the state university system’s Board of Governors, which will receive $1.5 million for the program. The bill also specifies that smokable medical marijuana cannot be banned from nursing homes and hospice facilities that already allow it.
“Being a physician is both an art and a science,” Brandes said on the floor. “There is a latitude we give physicians to try a new drug and try experimentation. That’s how we build on this body of research.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said when the 2017 bill was passed without a provision for smoking medical marijuana, the Legislature was doing what it thought was right. But now it’s “time to move on,” he said.
“I’m glad that Sen. Brandes with his good work has put reasonable guide rails before we move it from Tallahassee to doctors’ offices across the state of Florida. If we did nothing, there would be no guide rails,” Bradley said. “That would not be in the best interest of the state of Florida.”
Some senators said they were put in a hard place Thursday. If the chamber didn’t pass a bill to repeal a ban on smoking marijuana, the ban would be dissolved via litigation and an environment for smoking medical marijuana would exist without a safety net of rule-making like second opinions for minors and limits on recommended doses from certified physicians.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, who has expressed wariness of the bill throughout committee meetings, said she would only be voting for the bill out of necessity. The Stuart Republican said smoking medical marijuana “is not the intent of the voters.”
“The fact that we’re here today is very disappointing to me,” she said. “This bill has some faults in it, but it’s the best we can do at this point. I want to caution our physicians as they move forward ... We as a Legislature have the same responsibility that physicians have: Do no harm.”
Sen. Dennis Baxley, who said he has never voted for “one of these bills,” voted yes as well.
“With the room we have left given what’s transpired, you have protected children, and I appreciate that flexibility,” the Ocala Republican said. “We didn’t protect children in smoking tobacco. You’ve protected the children today.”
Sen. Keith Perry was also skeptical. But unlike the others, he voted no.
“We’re going to reap the benefits from the ill effects,” the Gainesville Republican said. “Let’s get the research first and then pass that.
“Sen. Doug Broxon, R-Gulf Breeze; Sen George. Gainer, R-Panama City, and Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, also voted no.
In his closing, Brandes made mention of Cathy Jordan, a Sarasota woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease who had been on a crusade to legalize medical marijuana since she was diagnosed with her disease 32 years ago. Smoking the drug is the best way for her to treat her condition.
“In her quiet voice, she would advocate for smokable medical cannabis,” Brandes said. “As Floridians, even those who barely have a voice in this process can be heard, recognized and respected. This legislation honors that in a way that is responsible.”