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Bill that would allow smokable medical pot advances in Florida Senate

“We’re getting closer," said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "The end is in sight, we’re not far.”

TALLAHASSEE -- With several amendments, heated debates and about three weeks to spare, the Senate’s bill to repeal a ban on smokable medical marijuana is headed to the floor before the March 15 deadline set by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators don’t by the deadline, the governor said he will do so with litigation.

The first time SB 182 came through committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes said it was altered beyond what he could defend.

But when Senators unanimously voted to approve an amended version in the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, Brandes said “We’re getting closer. The end is in sight, we’re not far.”

“This committee is made up of the senior members of the Florida Senate,” the St. Petersburg Republican said. “What you’re seeing today is that they’re in support of this legislation ... We have a very tight timeline to get it to the floor. I would expect this would be one of the first bills that come up.”

Brandes amended the bill so that the requirement for a second opinion for non-terminal patients applies only to patients under 18. The amendment requiring a second opinion for all non-terminal patients put forward by Sen. Gayle Harrell gave Brandes pause the first time around.

Brandes’ amendment also deletes a provision that prohibits a medical marijuana treatment center from selling products like pipes, bongs or rolling papers and specifies that those products can be bought elsewhere for patients who are recommended. It establishes a Medical Marijuana Research and Education Board to direct the operations of a consortium, specifies that smokable medical marijuana cannot be banned from nursing homes and hospice facilities that already allow medical marijuana and directs dispensaries to offer at least one kind of pre-rolled medical marijuana cigarette.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, proposed three different amendments but withdrew them all in the interest of time.

Brandes said he plans to file a bill this week or next that will address some of Farmer’s ideas, which included waiving medical marijuana card fees for veterans and active military members and protecting employees who are medical marijuana patients against workplace discrimination.

“It’s not his concepts that are being questioned, it’s the timing and the ability to work with members of the House on a defined set of issues,” Brandes said. “He’s acting in complete good faith.”

In 2016, about 71 percent of voting Floridians approved 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. In addition to the ban on smoking, the law also capped the number of medical marijuana licenses and the number of dispensaries in the state.

The provision, which became known as the “smoking ban,” was challenged in circuit court in July 2017. In its complaint, People United for Medical Marijuana, Inc., argued the smoking ban altered the definition of “marijuana” and by banning smoking in public, implicitly authorized smoking marijuana in a private place.

In May 2018, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers declared the smoking ban unconstitutional, but the Department of Health appealed the ruling later that month.

After DeSantis announced his intent to drop the appeal should the Legislature not act to remove the smoking ban, both parties filed a motion to stay the appeal until March 2019.

Shortly after, the Florida House’s Health and Human Services Committee put forward a bill that would allow smoking of medical marijuana in the form of pre-rolled filtered cigarettes from dispensaries. The bill also creates a new consortium for medical marijuana clinical research within the University of Florida, which will ideally create a plan that includes research on clinical outcomes. The bill, which was reported favorably, will continue on to Appropriations.

While the smoking ban repeal has gotten the support of Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, House Speaker José Oliva has openly criticized smoking medicinal marijuana as an option.

Lawmakers from both chambers were invited by Oliva earlier in the afternoon to a “Tally Talk” conversation with Alex Berenson, a journalist and author of ‘Tell Your Children: The Truth About Medical Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.’

“Marijuana is not medicine,” Berenson told lawmakers. “Cannabis use is a broad risk. The book has at least a dozen studies from all over the world. The risk for violence among cannabis users is at least the same among alcohol users.”

More than 185,000 patients across the state are qualified to receive medical marijuana to treat illnesses like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy. There are roughly 2,000 doctors who can prescribe medical marijuana and 101 locations that can dispense it.

Brandes said later this year he also hopes to file a bill that would expand the list of conditions that would qualify a patient for treatment and create a way to replace opioids with medical marijuana.