State medical marijuana director Christian Bax resigns

Christian Bax, the embattled head of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, is stepping down, the department announced Friday.
Christian Bax at the Tampa public hearing on medical marijuana provisions in 2017. [Cherie Diez | Tampa Bay Times]
Christian Bax at the Tampa public hearing on medical marijuana provisions in 2017. [Cherie Diez | Tampa Bay Times]
Published July 27, 2018|Updated July 27, 2018

Christian Bax, the embattled director of the state's Office of Medical Marijuana Use, is resigning after a three-year stint marked by rule-making delays, rocky litigation and continued criticism over patients' problems accessing the drug since medical cannabis was broadly legalized more than a year ago.

In his resignation letter, Bax wrote that he intends to step down no later than Aug. 10. He did not provide a reason for his departure or its timing. Courtney Coppola, the office's deputy director, will take over as interim director, said Devin Galetta, spokesman for the Department of Health.

Bax was appointed in 2015 to lead was then known as the Office of Compassionate Use, though his job application documented only 15 months of experience consulting on medical marijuana issues and his job was not publicly advertised, according to POLITICO Florida. Under his tenure, the office faced a rash of legal and administrative challenges over the state's licensing system for medical marijuana businesses and drew harsh criticism from legislators and patients as the office struggled to accommodate growing patient demand. The state still faces about a dozen pending lawsuits, including one brought by attorney John Morgan over the state Legislature's ban on smokeable medical marijuana.

Lawmakers were particularly irked by delays in the department's slow rule-making progress, which has delayed the rollout of parts of the 2017 law that implemented the constitutional amendment broadly legalizing the drug. During the legislative session earlier this year, a joint legislative committee took the office — and Bax in particular — to task for not responding to months of letters concerning the agency's rules. Lawmakers cited those delays when they eventually voted to hold back about $2 million in salaries and benefits for department officials until rules were implemented.

The office has blamed legal and administrative disputes for its problems with issuing regulations regarding the industry. It did make some moves this month toward increasing the number of businesses that are allowed to grow, process and sell the drug: It granted a 14th license, to Miami nursery Nature's Way, and signaled it was moving forward with an additional four business licenses. Officials also held a workshop on edible forms of medical marijuana earlier this week.

But advocates and businesses have continued to grapple with issues involving the office, including the limited number of licenses that are currently active and the enforcement of a little-noticed provision that briefly threatened to stop processing at nearly half of the state's existing treatment centers.

Coppola, who is replacing Bax, has already taken over day-to-day contact with some existing medical marijuana treatment centers, according to industry lobbyists. She also represented the department earlier this month before a joint legislative budget committee to request an additional $13.3 million in funding, which lawmakers approved despite complaints it was sidestepping the official budget-making process during session.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, who pushed the House's budget amendment withholding some salaries and benefits, said he thought the change in leadership would help speed up needed actions.

“I can only add to the chorus of voices hoping the office will get going on the rule-making, in accordance with the clear direction given from the Legislature, to ensure people appropriately have access to the drug,” he said in a message.