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Experts: Florida likely not a target in Jeff Sessions' move to restrict marijuana

 
This entrance to Surterra Wellness Center in Tampa is used for greeting patients and as a gathering space.  Surterra Holdings is one of several companies licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana products in Florida. The company said Thursday it would continue to operate as normal in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the U.S. government could no longer be counted on to look the other way in states that have legalized marijuana use. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
This entrance to Surterra Wellness Center in Tampa is used for greeting patients and as a gathering space. Surterra Holdings is one of several companies licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana products in Florida. The company said Thursday it would continue to operate as normal in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the U.S. government could no longer be counted on to look the other way in states that have legalized marijuana use. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Jan. 4, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Thursday that the U.S. government could no longer be counted on to look the other way in states that have legalized marijuana to various degrees even as the substance remains illegal under federal law.

But the 64,000 Floridians who are registered to receive medical marijuana need not to worry about getting in trouble from federal enforcement, advocates and state lawmakers say. At least not yet.

"I wouldn't get overly concerned that a state prosecutor is going to come after cancer patients by any means," said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has long been a leader on medical marijuana policy in the state. "But we need to monitor this closely."

The push by Sessions, who has been vocal about his disdain for legalizing marijuana, is likely aimed at states like California, Colorado and Washington, where the marijuana industry's impact is far greater than it is in Florida. Cannabis became legal for recreational use this week in California, and it has been legal in Colorado and Washington since 2012.

Those states are the "low-hanging fruit" that Sessions is likely after, said Chris Walsh, vice president of the trade publication, Marijuana Business Daily.

"I would say that it's uncertain how this is all going to play out, but there's bound to be some kind of ripple effect or chilling effect, at least," Walsh said. "The industry has been through this kind of climate before. A few attorneys have tried to go after it without a lot of success. And we're in a different era now where marijuana is much bigger and the industry is much more complex."

The Obama administration announced in a 2013 Justice Department memo that it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. Sessions is rescinding that memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, which had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.

Sessions is essentially allowing federal prosecutors where pot is legal to decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana law.

But the pot business has since become a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund schools, educational programs and law enforcement. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and California's sales alone are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years.

Experts note that the government's stance of not interfering with states as they pushed ahead with marijuana legislation was not an iron-clad protection anyway.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that California goes legal and the Cole memo is repealed," said Pete Sessa, chief operating officer with the Florida Cannabis Coalition, based in Tampa. "And this is not policy we're talking about. It's a memo and you can't repeal a memo. It never had any teeth to it. It was just a recommendation that people in the industry did put a lot of faith in, but it ultimately gave no protections."

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While Florida's fledgling medical marijuana market, with all its stops and starts, may not be a high-profile target, Sessions' announcement could have a chilling effect on the industry's growth in the state, said Ben Pollara, executive director of marijuana advocacy organization Florida for Care and one of the authors of the medical marijuana amendment.

"This is happening at a time when real institutional money and actors are starting to play in this space, and now those guys are going to go right back to the sidelines," Pollara said. "Florida's industry is in its infancy, but the players are giants, big companies with a lot of money. If investors start backing out, that will make it more difficult for these companies to deliver to the thousands of patients who've registered for this across the state."

The number of licensed medical marijuana companies in the state grew to 13 last year, per legislation passed during a special session in Tallahassee. Several companies reached for comment did not return calls and emails Thursday. Except for Surterra Wellness, which operates a dispensary and grow facility in Hillsborough County.

"Surterra will continue to cultivate and distribute medical cannabis to the thousands of patients using this all-natural plant to treat pain, cancer, PTSD and all the other ailments people suffer from that marijuana can help," Jake Bergmenn, CEO of Surterra, said in an email. "If anything, policy makers should seize this opportunity to bring forth legislation that legalizes marijuana and gives people that are using it medicinally security and safety standards for these products."

John Morgan, the noted central Florida attorney and a vocal advocate for medical marijuana, said he plans to invest $30 million in the next month in local companies and is undeterred by Sessions' rollback.

"I think this is going to have an effect on people investing in this space because of the uncertainty," Morgan said. "I'm going full steam ahead. I'm getting in at a value that I could not if this hadn't happened."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.