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Smoking medical pot is no longer illegal in Florida. But how soon can patients buy it?

When plants mature they are hung upside down in a dry room and defoliated after reaching an ideal moisture content. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)
Published Mar. 20

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law this week repealing a ban on smoking medical marijuana, but it could be weeks or months before smokable cannabis products hit the shelves in dispensaries across the state.

Florida's 14 licensed cannabis companies have been preparing to meet the demand for smokable cannabis products since Desantis announced that intention at a press conference shortly after he took office. The governor asked lawmakers to pass bills by March 15 lifting the smoking ban, or he would drop the state's appeals of at least eight lawsuits related to marijuana use in Florida, including one tied to the smoking ban filed by prominent attorney and cannabis activist John Morgan.

Lawmakers approved the legislation by an overwhelming margin.

Now it's up to the Florida Department of Health — the state agency in charge of implementing and enforcing the rules for Florida's burgeoning medical marijuana industry — to come up with guidelines for licensed cannabis companies to follow for selling smokable "flower," or the actual granules of the plant.

The bills "require rule-making from the Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine for standardized informed consent forms and practice standards for the certification of smoking as a route of administration," reads a statement from the Health Department. "It also requires rule-making related to the appearance, and labeling of marijuana delivery devices dispensed from a medical marijuana treatment center. The department is currently reviewing and preparing for the implementation to ensure safe access to this medicine."

The boards will meet in April to begin drafting rules. But there are some limitations already outlined in the bill's language.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Smokable medical pot is now legal in Florida after Ron DeSantis signs bill

SB 182 limits the number of ounces of smokable marijuana a patient may receive and carry at a time. Patients may receive up to six 35-day supplies of smokable cannabis and may not exceed 2.5 ounces per each 35-day order. Patients can have up to four ounces of marijuana at any given time.

Patients are not permitted to smoke in outdoor public places or inside workplaces, but they can smoke at home. Each patient must give written, informed consent to a licensed physician before being certified to receive smokable cannabis. The consent form contains information about the risks associated with smoking marijuana.

Patients under 18 with a terminal illness may smoke medical marijuana if they get a second opinion and recommendation from a pediatrician.

Florida's licensed medical marijuana companies must also apply for a variance with the health department, outlining the details of the smokable products they plan to offer. These products must be approved by the state before being offered for sale.

Surterra Wellness, an Atlanta-based company with a license to operate in Florida, plans to offer pre-rolls of cannabis in a variety of strains and potencies, Kim Hawkes, a spokeswoman with the licensed medical marijuana company, said in a statement. Surterra also expects to launch additional "whole flower" products later in the year, which will be available for purchase in Surterra dispensaries and through delivery. The company, which needs state approval, hopes to announce more details in April.

Trulieve, another dispensing company, expanded its manufacturing base in Quincy earlier this year to accommodate more plants and meet the demand for smokable products, said company CEO Kim Rivers.

Trulieve has already submitted an amendment for smokable products and is waiting for the variance process with the Health Department to begin, Rivers said.

"In the last 90 days we've expanded our floor space in anticipation for the demand of this kind of product," Rivers said. "We hope to get the product on our dispensary shelves as fast as possible."

Most of the licensed companies in Florida, which grow, manufacture and sell their own products, are preparing for the addition of smokable product.

RELATED: Are Florida doctors prepared to treat patients with medical marijuana?

"We've been preparing for this for a while," said Randy Maslow, president of iAnthus Capital, the publicly-traded parent company of GrowHealthy, a licensed dispensing company in Florida. "Now we just have to see how long it takes, the rule making and the permitting process. It's been a high priority of the new governor and I think the Health Department is getting the message."

Despite the 71 percent approval from Florida voters of a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, state agencies and lawmakers have been notoriously slow in implementing rules to allow the industry to grow. The health department faced criticism over long wait times for issuing medical I.D. cards, which are required for patients to access medical marijuana products.

Nearly 195,000 Floridians have signed up with the Department of Health to receive medical marijuana as a form of treatment for a list of qualifying illnesses, such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDs, chronic pain and others. And more than 2,000 physicians have taken the state-mandated course that qualifies them to examine those patients and recommend products that might help.

While the 2017 bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, smoking was illegal.

"One of the reasons why the medical program developed slowly in this state is because it didn't allow smokable flower," Maslow said. "That left a lot of people looking for cannabis on the black market, even though they are true medical patients. These patients are reluctant to change what they know works and a big part of the relief they're getting is from the smoke."

Maslow said the introduction of smokable products should drive down the overall cost of medical cannabis.

"It costs less to produce. It's not the same processing costs that go into producing oils for vapes and tinctures. I think prices will come down 20 to 25 percent in a mature market for flower. The price going out the door is less," he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report. Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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