Controversial Florida medical marijuana bill ‘effectively dead’

“I think the bill is effectively dead,” the bill’s Republican sponsor said Monday.
Photo of medical marijuana taken at Zen Leaf, a medical marijuana dispensary in Neptune, New Jersey. Taken April 16, 2021.
Photo of medical marijuana taken at Zen Leaf, a medical marijuana dispensary in Neptune, New Jersey. Taken April 16, 2021. [ DOUG HOOD | Asbury Park Press ]
Published April 19, 2021|Updated April 19, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A controversial measure being contemplated by Florida lawmakers to cap the potency of medical marijuana will apparently not become law this year.

For weeks, House Bill 1455 seemed to have some momentum in the Republican-led Florida Legislature. In March, Republican lawmakers in two House committees voted to advance the bill, which, among other things, would have capped the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the marijuana offered to patients. (THC is the main psychoactive component of marijuana).

The measure would have had to clear just one more committee until it could be heard on the House floor: Health and Human Services. But the health committee met Monday for the last scheduled time without hearing the THC bill.

“I think the bill is effectively dead,” said the measure’s sponsor, Spencer Roach, R-Fort Myers. “Anything is possible, and nothing is ever really dead until sine die. But right now I don’t see a path forward.”

Roach noted that time was running out for HB 1455 even before it hit the roadblock in Health and Human Services. Lawmakers have just 60 days to pass laws during Florida’s regular legislative session, and the Senate version of the bill, SB 1958, had gained no traction in that chamber.

Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakland, the chair of the Health and Human Services committee, said she decided not to hear Roach’s bill Monday because its lack of movement in the Senate meant it had little chance of becoming law.

“When it gets to this late in session, we really need to concentrate on the bills where we seem to have a better partnership between the Senate and the House,” Burton said.

The regular legislative session ends April 30.

Proponents of the THC capping measure, including many House Republicans, said the legislation was needed in part to stop drug seeking behavior on the part of medical marijuana patients. At multiple committee stops, Roach compared the issues with Florida’s medical marijuana system to the issues that bred the state’s deadly opioid crisis. (Democratic opponents, noting that a marijuana overdose has never killed a Floridian, dismissed such concerns as “reefer madness.”)

The bill’s apparent death was celebrated by medical marijuana advocates, who argued the measure would have amounted to the Legislature overriding a doctor’s medical advice. The bill would have limited the amount of THC in smokable cannabis to just ten percent of the plant by volume; what if, advocates argued, a doctor thought a patient needed stronger medicine than that?

Florida is home to some 533,000 medical cannabis patients who use the drug to treat a variety of ailments.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat and a medical marijuana patient herself, was among the bill’s harshest critics. She said Monday that its death was a victory for democracy.

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Related: Controversial Florida medical marijuana bill one step closer to becoming law

“Thank God for all of the activists that came up to Tallahassee, that signed the petitions. That’s what democracy looks like: when we get together, we hear from the people, and legislation that would have hurt them is stopped,” Fried said.

However, those advocates also cautioned that the caps could resurface later in session. Even when legislation does not pass muster in House and Senate committees, bills or parts of bills can be amended onto measures being considered on the House or Senate floor. A hypothetical example that would worry medical marijuana advocates: a portion of the THC cap policy is amended onto a larger bill that hits the House floor, and then passes.

That’s essentially what happened in 2020, when the House voted to pass THC caps for medical marijuana patients younger than 21. That proposal was attached to a larger health care bill.

Roach and Rodrigues, the House and Senate sponsors of the THC cap bills, respectively, said they’re not sure if they will bring the bills back next year.

But Roach said he hopes the Legislature continues to have conversations about how to improve the state’s medical marijuana program.

“I think the (medical marijuana) industry has done a very good job of spinning this narrative that ‘Spencer Roach is trying to take away your medicine,’” Roach said. “I think we lost the battle for the narrative on this one.”

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