A court ruled Wednesday that Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner can grow his own marijuana for medical purposes, a decision that lawyers say could lead to a wave of similar cases.
The ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers applies only to Redner, 77. The Florida Department of Health responded quickly, filing an appeal.
The department had said Floridians are barred under state rules from growing cannabis for their personal use, including those who are legally registered as medical marijuana patients.
But Redner and other critics across the state say the health department continues to create barriers for more than 95,000 registered patients in Florida that could benefit from marijuana. Redner is a stage 4 lung cancer survivor and a registered medical marijuana patient.
"Under Florida law, Plantiff Redner is entitled to possess, grow and use marijuana for juicing, soley for the purpose of his emulsifying the biomass he needs for the juicing protocol recommended by his physician," Gievers said in her ruling. The word "solely" is bolded and underlined for emphasis in the document.
"The court also finds … that the Florida Department of Health has been, and continues to be non-compliant with the Florida constitutional requirements," the judge added, referring to the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2016 that made medical marijuana legal.
Redner's attorney, Luke Lirot of Clearwater, said the judge was right to "castigate the health department for being a barrier to medicine."
While the ruling affects only Redner, Lirot says his case "does provide a usable approach for other people whose doctors will certify that this is of value."
In the meantime, the state's appeal will block Redner from growing his own marijuana right away. Lirot said his first order of business will be to try to lift the stay that prevents Redner from growing and juicing marijuana during the appeals process, which likely won't begin until late this year or early next year.
"The appellate process takes a long time, and in this case, it's going to affect Redner's life exclusively," said Jay Wolfson, a professor at Stetson University College of Law and the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. "Because this issue is big enough, no matter who loses in appeals, the case will go on the state supreme court after this. You can bet on that."
In January, Gievers denied a motion by the Florida Department of Health to dismiss Redner's case. The judge also denied Redner's motion for an emergency temporary injunction, which would have allowed him to grow marijuana plants during the court process. But she described Redner's plea in the case as "constitutional in nature," which allowed it to move forward.
In her ruling, Gievers says the health department "has still not complied with the Constitution," and until it stops "violating its constitutional duty and mandated presumptive regulation, the evidence clearly demonstrates that Redner is entitled to follow the recommendations of his certified physician under Florida law."
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"The Legislature failed to act and that has a lot of consequences. This case is one of them," said Leslie Sammis, a Tampa-based defense attorney who is also a member of the The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws legal committee. "I think that the state and the health department should focus their energy on coming into compliance with this court order instead of stalling until it's forced upon them by the courts."
During a short, non-jury trial in March, attorneys representing the health department warned that Redner's case could open the door to more lawsuits over the constitutional amendment's language. Several lawsuits already have been filed against the department, but none other than Redner's has specifically challenged the state agency's interpretation of the amendment's language.
"It is my understanding that the health department is facing many pending lawsuits," Wolfson said. "It's a legal quagmire."
Redner says this means other patients should be able to challenge to possess their own plants, too.
"With this order, (patients) can go to their doctor now, and as long as they have a good enough reason to need to possess a plant, be it because they can't afford the medicine at the dispensaries, as long as they have a recommendation anyone should be allowed to grow," Redner said. "The cat is out of the bag. There's no way to stop this now."
Contact Justine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.