Florida approves $13.3 million for medical marijuana office

(The Associated Press)
(The Associated Press)
Published Jul. 19, 2018

A joint committee of state lawmakers reluctantly approved another $13.3 million in funding for the state office regulating medical marijuana Thursday, despite being frustrated by delays in implementing the bill that broadly legalized the drug for medical use last summer.

The request from the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, made less than a month after the state's new fiscal budget went into effect, will go toward several operations including a computer tracking system for medical marijuana plants "from seed to sale," securing a vendor for patient identification card processing and paying for legal fees.

The most sizable expense — more than half of the money requested — is linked to licensing four more medical marijuana treatment centers and reviewing an expected 400 applications for the slots. The Department of Health granted an additional license last week to Nature's Way, a Miami nursery, to settle ongoing litigation and announced it was finally moving forward with awarding the additional licenses after the state patient registry exceeded 100,000 patients this spring.

The mammoth state budget requires passage by both chambers of the Legislature, but the joint legislative budget committee can make changes to it as requested throughout the year. The Office of Medical Marijuana Use received just shy of $1 million in the original state budget, and representatives for the department said Thursday that they waited to make the additional funding request because they were still gathering information about what costs would be incurred and when.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, took the office to task for not raising the issues while the budget was being crafted during session.

"Most if not all of the costs that are outlined in this request have been known or anticipated for quite a while," she said. "Why are we using a process that essentially is meant for fixing mistakes… to fund the implementation of a constitutional amendment that 71 percent of Florida voters approved almost two years ago?"

Lawmakers have clashed with the office repeatedly since passing the bill that implemented a 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. During the legislative session earlier this year, another joint legislative committee took the office to task for failing to respond for months to letters from a committee expressing concerns with the agency's rules, and lawmakers eventually agreed to hold back nearly $2 million in salaries and benefits for department officials until rules were implemented.

The office has blamed legal and administrative disputes, including fallout from Hurricane Irma, for the slow progress in implementing cannabis for medical use.

Lawmakers nevertheless approved the office's request, citing progress in moving forward with the medical marijuana system put into place last year. The approval makes $5.6 million available immediately and sets aside the remaining $7.7 million in reserves.

Though he supported the funding request, committee chair Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, echoed his concerns with the department's belated move to amend the budget rather than request the money outright during session.

"I'm disappointed that we're dealing with it now," he told reporters after the meeting. But he said the committee was "looking for solutions, not to assign blame… We stand ready to fund what needs to be funded."

But Bradley defended he legislature's decision to "tie pay to performance" by withholding officials' salaries and benefits earlier this year: "I think the department is moving at a quicker pace than perhaps they have in the past. We just want this done."