Medical marijuana is booming in Florida, but the industry is nervous. Here’s why.

A bill capping THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, and a landmark Florida Supreme Court case could change the game in Florida.
A worker at a San Francisco medical cannabis clinic prepares packets of marijuana buds for sale. The industry is booming in Florida. [Associated Press File Photo]
A worker at a San Francisco medical cannabis clinic prepares packets of marijuana buds for sale. The industry is booming in Florida. [Associated Press File Photo]
Published March 5, 2021|Updated March 5, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — During a year when the state lost more than 400,000 jobs, Florida’s cannabis industry in 2020 added nearly 15,000 employees, according to the cannabis website Leafly.

Four years after Florida voters approved its legalization for medical purposes, marijuana is a $1.2 billion business. Industry insiders say it’s growing every day.

That type of success would usually earn support in Florida’s business friendly Legislature. But the 2021 lawmaking session is anything but a victory lap for Florida’s pot sector. Entrepreneurs and medical marijuana patients are worried about a slate of sweeping reforms in the form of legislation or a Florida Supreme Court opinion.

Currently, Florida’s medical marijuana market is notoriously difficult to enter: only 22 companies have licenses from the state to dispense the drug. The companies that are allowed by the state to sell medical marijuana must also have enough resources to be vertically integrated, meaning they harvest, package and sell the products prescribed to patients.

In 2017, the state denied Tampa-based Florigrown the right to become one of the companies licensed to sell medical marijuana. Now, the firm is suing, arguing that the 2017 law which created the Florida medical marijuana program amounts to an unconstitutional series of government giveaways to certain fortunate private companies.

“It could have gigantic implications,” said Ben Pollara, a medical marijuana advocate with Florida for Care who was instrumental to the 2016 push. “The Supreme Court has so much latitude on this, it could be nothing, it could be ... everything.”

Then there’s the Legislature. Legislation offered by Republicans, SB 1958 and HB 1455, would limit the amount of the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Under the Republicans’ proposals, smokable plants would have to be a maximum of 10 percent THC by volume. Most smokable marijuana offered to patients has more THC than that.

The issue of caps has come up before — the Florida House passed a 10 percent THC cap for patients under 21 in 2020. That measure died in the Senate, however.

This year, the measures’ Republican sponsors, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, want to expand the proposal to all medical marijuana — except marijuana prescribed to terminal patients.

Brady Cobb, CEO of One Plant, one of the state’s licensed medical marijuana treatment centers, said the proposed caps would upend the ecosystem that nearly 470,000 patients across the state rely on. Patients, thousands of whom suffer from severe chronic pain, would be forced to change the medicine they’re used to taking. Unsatisfied with the product, many would inevitably leave the legal medical program for the black market, Cobb said.

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“This is not grounded in science, this is not grounded in patient advocacy,” Cobb said. “This is a political battle going on.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat, ran in part on expanded access to medical marijuana in 2018. She’s also called for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, which the Legislature is all but certain to ignore.

At a news conference earlier this week, Fried called the proposed caps “outrageous.”

“It could set the program back years,” Fried said. “The people of our state should be angry. Should be frustrated.”

Proponents of the caps say they’re necessary to combat what they say are the negative long-term psychological effects of marijuana.

The House Health Professions and Public Health subcommittee in February welcomed Harvard Psychobiology professor Bertha Madras to give a presentation on some of the negative societal consequences associated with expanding access to high-potency cannabis.

Much of Madras’ presentation had little to do with Florida’s medical cannabis program: one slide described the purported relationship between marijuana use and 19th century mental health facility admissions in a part of India.

But the central argument made by Madras was that lawmakers should not allow high-potency marijuana to spread throughout the state without knowing the potential consequences for the human brain.

That argument is being made at the highest levels of the Legislature.

“The sticker, the advertisement, doesn’t always match the reality of what’s in there,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor at a news conference this week, noting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis products as medicine. “I think it’s appropriate, given that this was more of a political creation than a creation of science, that we go and we verify ‘Hey, does this make sense?’”

A U.S. Senate report released this week also called for further federal research into the long-term effects of high-potency marijuana.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has said he’ll let the THC cap proposal make its way through Senate committees. That could be good news for the industry: the Senate killed last year’s cap proposal.

But cannabis advocates aren’t taking any chances. Florida for Care, Pollara’s advocacy group, on Thursday delivered more than 30,000 signed forms from people opposing the caps to House and Senate Republican and Democratic leadership.

Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the most vocal Republican opponent of the THC caps, said that those who understand medical marijuana the best are making themselves heard. They’re not for the caps.

“If we had a line of physicians here who diagnose and treat individuals with medical cannabis coming to support this, that would be one thing,” Brandes said. “But you don’t. In fact, they’re going in the exact opposite direction.”