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On medical marijuana, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to heed the will of voters

He says current law doesn’t match the intent of a constitutional amendment passed by more than 70 percent of voters in 2016.

WINTER PARK — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that he has asked the Legislature to change the law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If it doesn’t by mid March, he’ll drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that says banning it violates a constitutional amendment.

Against a backdrop of lush green in Winter Park — the hometown of attorney and medical marijuana champion John Morgan — DeSantis added that he plans to drop appeals in several other cases regarding limited licensing and vertical integration, which requires medical marijuana companies to grow, manufacture, sell and market their own product.

“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. “Whether they (patients) have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that? I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved. I don’t think this law is up to snuff.”

Former Gov. Rick Scott’s outgoing administration made the argument to ban smoking to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee last Tuesday afternoon, as DeSantis was being sworn into office.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, speaks during a press conference with Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary, left, and John Morgan, about his plan to pressure state legislators and give them a mid-March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park on Thursday. (Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr.)

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and Morgan, DeSantis’ announcement comes on the heels of the oral arguments in the appeal made by Scott as well as a Twitter coquetry between Gaetz and Morgan, who have been using the hashtag #NoSmokeIsAJoke and dropping hints of DeSantis’ announcement.

In 2016, 71 percent of Floridians voted to legalize medical marijuana on a constitutional amendment largely bankrolled by Morgan. The 2017 bill signed into law by Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, but made it illegal to smoke. The law also capped the number of medical-marijuana licenses and the number of dispensaries in the state, and Scott appealed court decisions that ruled these limitations unconstitutional.

Neither House Speaker José Oliva nor Senate President Bill Galvano were present, but DeSantis said both leaders say they will comply with the governor’s request.

“I am somebody who respects the prerogative of the Legislature,” he said. “I don’t want these things being dealt with judicially if we can help it.”

DeSantis’ announcement continues the new governor’s streak of strong actions. Since his inauguration, the Republican governor has appointed two Florida Supreme Court justices, suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and Okaloosa County Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, unveiled a 12-part plan to address water issues plaguing the state, pardoned the Groveland Four and waged a fight against Airbnb’s West Bank boycott.

“We have a lot of fish to fry in Florida,” DeSantis said. “The last thing I want to do be doing is cleaning up something that should have been done two years ago. I don’t want to continue fighting some of these old battles.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, laughs with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, left, and John Morgan, after a press conference at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park on Thursday. (Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr.)

A Tallahassee judge recently ruled that the law passed to implement the amendment was unconstitutional because it both required marijuana operators to grow, process and distribute related products while also capping the number of marijuana licenses. About 20 lawsuits still swirl around the issue, including many petitions for licenses from parties that were denied one.

Morgan, who tenaciously fought the state on the smoking ban, said DeSantis is simply honoring the amendment voters agreed on years ago.

“ ‘No smoke’ is no longer a joke,” Morgan said in an interview after the press conference. “For me, it is a victory for the people of Florida. This plant was put into nature by God for us, and it works.”

Morgan said he’s now “finished his fight” and hopes for insurance coverage for the sake of curbing the state’s opioid crisis.

More than 167,000 patients across the state are qualified to receive medical marijuana to treat illnesses like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy. There are roughly 1,900 doctors who can prescribe medical marijuana and 83 locations that can dispense it.

“When there’s insurance for medical marijuana, that’s when we’re really going to put a dent in the opioid and Oxycontin industry,” Morgan said. “My battle will continue against the opioid industry in court.”

Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican who played a key role writing medical marijuana legislation, served as one of DeSantis’ top transition advisers.

“The structure that I largely built is one that I can no longer defend,” he said, referring to the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, known as Charlotte’s Web. “It’s how we had to do it to get the votes. I’m grateful that we have leadership that is going to put the patients and the will of the people first.”

Outside the governor’s office, state agencies and leaders say they’re poised to take action.

One of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s first big moves as commissioner was creating a “director of cannabis” position within her department. The attorney and former medical marijuana lobbyist campaigned largely on promises to expand access to the treatment, and said making changes by March is not soon enough.

“Every day that medical marijuana in the pure plant form is unavailable to patients, Floridians continue to suffer,” she said. “This is an issue I’ve seen firsthand throughout our state and country, and one that touches my family personally — my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, and she is struggling to find medicine that relieves her suffering. The fact that she can’t access the medicine she needs breaks my heart.”

Fried has advocated for legalizing smokable medical marijuana since the start of her campaign, saying the smoking ban is against the “will of the people” in a video she posted to Twitter Sept. 13.

In the video, Fried called out Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implored DeSantis, then-Republican nominee for governor to respond.

In the state Senate, Sen. Jeff Brandes says he plans on filing a bill this session to open up the caps on licenses and get rid of “vertical integration,” which requires treatment centers to wear three hats: as growers, processors and distributors of the drug. Brandes also added that people should be able to smoke the drug if that’s what their doctors prescribe.

“What other drug does the government tell you how to ingest?” said the St. Petersburg Republican, who was an early supporter of medical marijuana. “It’s a doctor-patient issue. The government doesn’t insert themselves in there.”

Brandes also suggested that Florida should not only be expanding access to medical marijuana but be posturing for recreational marijuana as well.

Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who helped write Florida’s marijuana laws, told the News Service of Florida that he was disappointed that health officials have yet to lay out a plan for medical-marijuana operators to make and sell edible marijuana products.

“We’re not where we need to be. There needs to be more licenses. What that looks like is an important discussion to have. Whether that happens through the Legislature or through the courts remains to be seen,” he said.

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