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Smokable medical pot gets final approval in Florida House, bill heads to Ron DeSantis for signature

DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators didn’t by the March 15 deadline he set, the governor said he would do so with litigation.

Without much debate and two days before Gov. Ron DeSantis’ deadline, a bill to repeal a ban on smoking medical marijuana has finally rolled onto the governor’s desk.

The Florida House affirmed the right to smoke medical pot Wednesday afternoon, approving the Senate bill to include “smoking” to the language in the medical marijuana constitutional amendment. The bill allows patients to receive up to 2.5 ounces of whole flower cannabis every 35 days as recommended by their qualified doctor.

The bill passed 101-11. Seven representatives were not present for the vote.

DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators didn’t by the March 15 deadline he set, the governor said he would do so with litigation.

House Speaker José Oliva has openly criticized smoking medicinal marijuana as an option, saying efforts to legalize it are just “some cover” for getting access to recreational marijuana.

“I’ve been in the smoke business my entire life and I’ve never heard anyone say it’s good for you,” the Miami Lakes Republican and cigar company CEO said then.

On Wednesday, Oliva told reporters that he had reservations then and still has them now.

“This is a difficult issue ... This is the best that we could do and still remain responsible,” he said. “I would certainly have been interested to hear what would have come of that appeal. We might still. But I think that the most important thing was that the elected lawmakers of the state have an opportunity to legislate how this will be governed in our state.”

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 ruled the smoking ban to be unconstitutional, but the Department of Health appealed the ruling. After DeSantis announced his intent to drop the appeal, both parties filed a motion to stay the appeal until this month.

In addition to repealing the ban on smoking, the bill passed Wednesday also establishes a Medical Marijuana Research and Education Board. The board will oversee a research consortium established by the state university system’s Board of Governors, which will receive $1.5 million for the program. Instead of only including the University of Florida as the previous law did, all universities can apply to participate. House bill sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues said expanding the research is something that “we would be benefited from.”

The bill also requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under age 18.

“While there’s not a lot of science out there currently on the effects of medical marijuana there’s a body of science on the effects of medical marijuana to the developing brain,” Rodrigues said. “But with children who have a terminal illness, long-term concerns are secondary to the short-term concerns.”

It 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 only addresses the repeal of the smoking ban and does not address the current integration structure surrounding medical marijuana treatment centers nor does it address provisions like drug-free workplace protections.

If the chamber didn’t pass a bill to repeal a ban on smoking marijuana, the ban would be dissolved via litigation.

Rodrigues, chair of the chamber’s Health & Human Services Committee, said without a bill, no “guardrails” would exist to protect patients through rule-making like second opinions for minors and limits on recommended doses from certified physicians.

“It is upon [doctors] to do their jobs, to treat this as medicine and be diligent about how they’re recommending it to their patients,” said Rodrigues, R-Estero. “We’ll be watching and we’ll be hopeful that the best will occur. If the best does not occur, this subject will be revisited in the future.”

DeSantis has two days to review the bill before his own deadline to enact a law.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist who campaigned on the promise of expanded access to the medicine, said the legislation was needed.

“Today’s action to finally allow smokable medical marijuana brings four words to the lips of people across our state: ‘It’s about damn time,’ ” Fried said. “I’m thankful for the House and Senate’s work to fix this situation.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.