Smokable medical pot is now legal in Florida after Ron DeSantis signs bill

“A disabled Vietnam veteran and a woman with ALS took on the state of Florida and we won."
While sitting at her dining room table, Cathy Jordan of Parrish inhales a marijuana joint held by her husband, Robert Jordan. Cathy was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. She has been smoking marijuana and says it has slowed the progression of her disease. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
While sitting at her dining room table, Cathy Jordan of Parrish inhales a marijuana joint held by her husband, Robert Jordan. Cathy was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. She has been smoking marijuana and says it has slowed the progression of her disease. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published March 18, 2019|Updated March 18, 2019

It started in 1986 with a puff of Myakka Gold marijuana on Bradenton Beach.

Cathy Jordan was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and given no more than five years to live. She came down to Florida from her home in Delaware with the goal to end her own life.

She wanted to see the beach and smoke some pot before she took a handful of muscle relaxers that would numb her pain once and for all.

But after a few hits on the beach that night, she suddenly felt better. She went home to Delaware and told her husband, Bob Jordan, about her experience. Little did they know, the couple had become a part of something bigger.

“I didn’t believe her,” Jordan said. “But as we got more aware of it, we found out when she has cannabis she’s better. And when she doesn’t have it, she’s sick.”

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Twenty years later Cathy Jordan, who has been living with ALS, has become the face of a movement for medical marijuana. More specifically, smokable medical marijuana — a ban on which was repealed by the Florida Legislature and quietly signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday. There was no public signing of the bill, which also establishes a research consortium, allows products like bongs and rolling papers to be purchased and requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under age 18.

But long before DeSantis took up repealing a ban on smokable pot, Bob Jordan was growing and perfecting the strains that would work best for his wife of 37 years.

It’s a daily routine that’s lasted as long as Jordan can remember.

After he gets Cathy out of bed, cleaned up and dressed in the morning, she sits at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and two marijuana cigarettes. She sips. She smokes. She coughs.

The cough is key. It brings up the phlegm that accumulates in her lungs, a process for which some ALS patients use a special vest-like device.

“It ain’t pretty, but she coughs it up and then she says she can start her day,” Jordan said.

The cannabis also dries out her mouth, helping her maintain excess saliva instead of resigning to a towel or worse, choking.

Bob Jordan said he put “a lot of love” into cultivating his plants, which he harvests, hangs to dry and then carefully trims to make his wife’s joints.

He said the potential harm his wife faces without marijuana is “more heinous than the crime.”

“Cathy faces death,” he said. “It’s medical necessity.”

In 2013, the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Bill was introduced by former Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth and former Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation,

Shortly after, the Jordan’s Parrish home was raided by deputies and detectives with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office drug intervention unit. No arrests were made, but 23 marijuana plants Jordan uses for her treatments were confiscated by authorities.

After the raid, Bob Jordan said that he connected with John Morgan, the prominent Orlando attorney who eventually bankrolled the constitutional amendment that led to legalizing medical marijuana in 2017.

Jordan said he’s most proud of how his efforts have given people the freedom to tap cannabis and “take them out of the shadows.”

“There’s no shame in sickness,” he said.

Morgan, whose younger brother was paralyzed as a teenage lifeguard after a diving accident, said he fights for his brother’s right to use marijuana to relieve pain and stop spasms. He said he became interested in legalizing the drug after he met the Jordans and when he saw people trying to do it in a ‘haphazard way.”

“The only way to do it was to pour money at it and pour money at it fast,” Morgan said.

Morgan first fought to get a medical marijuana proposal on the ballot in 2014, but it got too much push back from anti-drug groups and too few signatures to make it. In 2016, he poured in more money to try it again, focusing on older voters and riding the high voter turnout of a presidential election.

In total, he says he’s spent $15 million on the cause.

“I thought of Cathy Jordan, I thought of Tim Morgan and I thought of hundreds of thousands like them. That’s what motivated me to try the second time,” Morgan said. “Then we won but we didn’t really win because Rick Scott ... did what he wanted to do, not what the people wanted to do.”

In 2016, about 71 percent of Floridians who voted were in favor of 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, commonly referred to as the “smoking ban,” was challenged in circuit court in July 2017. In his complaint, Morgan, who represented patients and two advocacy organizations, argued the smoking ban altered the definition of “marijuana” and by banning smoking in public, implicitly authorized smoking marijuana in a private place. He asked the court to invalidate the law passed by the Florida Legislature because it violated the intent of the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2016.

Other similar cases were heard and ruled favorably by a circuit court judge — cases Scott appealed before he left office.

“It’s a generational thing” Morgan said. “Rick Scott is an old, bald-headed dinosaur. The Rick Scott generation has a fear of marijuana. They don’t know the difference between marijuana and LSD and fentanyl.”

In June, an appellate court refused to lift a stay on a Tallahassee judge’s ruling that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if their doctors approve it, making smokable medical pot a talking point among those running for office.

As campaign season progressed, the smoking issue cropped up across social media. Then-candidate for agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried said smoking medical marijuana was the “will of the people” in a video she posted to Twitter on Sept. 13. In the video, Fried calls out Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implored DeSantis and Fried’s opponent, former Rep. Matt Caldwell, to respond.

The hashtag “#NoSmokeIsAJoke, coined by Morgan, followed suit and continues to pepper Florida politics onTwitter.

And while conversations surrounding marijuana continued to build, so did the money. Since the summer of 2016, when a campaign to bring medical marijuana to Florida ramped up, Florida’s licensed cannabis corporations and their executives have given at least $2.5 million in political contributions to state lawmakers and political parties.

The new governor wasn’t blind to the donations he received or the interest from influencers like Morgan, and he had the likes of U.S. Rep Matt Gaetz and state Sen. Jeff Brandes in his ear. At a Jan. 17 press conference DeSantis held in Orlando, he declared if lawmakers didn’t pass bills by March 15 allowing patients to smoke marijuana, he’d drop the state’s appeals of at least eight lawsuits — including one filed by Morgan.

“What the Florida Legislature has done to implement the people’s will has not been done in accordance with what the amendment envisioned,” DeSantis said at the time. “Whether they [patients] have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?”

The Legislature swiftly took action to carry out the governor’s orders.

The Senate was the first to get a bill passed out of the chamber, with the leadership of Brandes at the helm.

In his closing statement on the Senate floor, Brandes said Jordan represents those who need to smoke marijuana to live.

“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.”

The House, which overwhelmingly approved the bill March 13, treated the legislation as more of an obligation to DeSantis than a priority of the chamber.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, who sponsored the 2017 bill banning smoking, sponsored the 2019 House bill to repeal the ban. The Estero Republican said without the bill to guide smoking marijuana, a federal judge’s ruling striking down the state’s smoking ban would leave Florida with “the law of the wild west.”

House Speaker José Oliva had 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 a press conference before the legislative session started.

After the House vote, Oliva told reporters that he still has reservations.

“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.”

After the House passed the Senate bill, both DeSantis, the new governor, and Fried, the marijuana lobbyist turned agriculture commissioner, Fried cheered.

“The Florida Legislature has taken a significant step this week to uphold the will of the voters and support the patients who will gain relief as a result of this legislation,” DeSantis wrote in a statement.

“It’s about damn time,” Fried echoed.

Jordan says he considers the bill signing to be a victory of sorts.

“A disabled Vietnam veteran and a woman with ALS took on the state of Florida and we won,” Jordan said. “It brought us to where we are today. If that lawsuit was not in place right now, they would not have passed this.”