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Florida lawmakers clash on smoking ban on medical pot

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tasked the Legislature with changing Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana, is facing a rift between chambers
Published Jan. 31, 2019
Updated Jan. 31, 2019

The road to reversing the ban on smokable medical marijuana may not be a smooth one.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tasked the Legislature with changing Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana, is facing a rift between chambers: The Senate is confident in its support, but the House is not so eager.

If lawmakers don’t comply by March 15 — 10 days after the start of the legislative session — he says he’ll drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that the ban violates a constitutional amendment.

“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 two weeks ago, when he announced his plan for the Legislature. “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.”

After voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2016, the Legislature passed and former Gov. Rick Scott signed a law allowing access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, but made it illegal to smoke. A court ruling that the ban on smoking medical marijuana was unconstitutional was appealed by the Scott administration.

Addressing reporters Wednesday during an Associated Press pre-legislative session meeting, Senate President Bill Galvano echoed DeSantis and said he is confident the Legislature will get something to the governor’s desk by the March 15 deadline. Two bills have already been filed in the Senate to reverse the smoking ban — SB 182 and SB 372.

“Right now, we are with the governor,” the Bradenton Republican said. “Smoking is the issue we are going to address first and foremost.”

In the other chamber, there’s less urgency to repeal the ban on smokable medical marijuana. No bills have yet been filed, and House Speaker José Oliva criticized smoking medicinal marijuana as an option.

He said smoking wasn’t on the ballot, and that efforts to legalize smokable medical marijuana are just “some cover” for getting access to recreational marijuana. He pointed out that the drug is still illegal under federal law, and is still a concern because of its “highly marketable” quality.

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

While his chamber aims to have legislation to the governor on deadline, the process of making a compromise with the Senate is the “devil in the details,” Oliva said.

“There are two chambers, and I think we have to come to an understanding of what the definition of what we’re trying to accomplish is,” he said.

In 2016, 71 percent of Floridians voted to legalize medical marijuana on a constitutional amendment that was largely bankrolled by John Morgan, an Orlando personal injury lawyer.

Since then, more than 176,000 patients across the state have qualified to receive medical marijuana to treat illnesses like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy. There are nearly 2,000 doctors who can prescribe medical marijuana and 93 locations that can sell it.

Since the start of her campaign, newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has advocated legalizing smokable medical marijuana, saying the smoking ban is against the “will of the people.” In a video she posted to Twitter Sept. 13, Fried called out Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implored DeSantis, then the Republican nominee for governor, to respond.

On Wednesday she said she hoped DeSantis would just drop Scott’s appeal of the court ruling instead of putting the onus on the Legislature but is willing to work with both chambers to come to an agreement by the deadline.

“I would be happy to testify in any Senate or House committee or talk to any legislators about the need and the importance of getting the smokable flower to patients,” she said. “Most of our patients who are on medical marijuana have the most vulnerable immune systems. They need the purest form of access to this medicine. Everything they are getting now is clean, but the delivery mechanism isn’t working.”