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  1. Florida Politics

Romano: Two years later, politicians still ignoring Florida voters on medical marijuana

While other states have implemented medical marijuana sales with minimal aggravation, Florida politicians have tried to limit the scope of a voter-approved constitutional amendment passed in 2016. Now, the attorney general's office is appealing several recent court decisions that have criticized Florida's regulatory system. This picture is from a medical marijuana market in Seattle. [AP Photo/Elaine Thompson]
While other states have implemented medical marijuana sales with minimal aggravation, Florida politicians have tried to limit the scope of a voter-approved constitutional amendment passed in 2016. Now, the attorney general's office is appealing several recent court decisions that have criticized Florida's regulatory system. This picture is from a medical marijuana market in Seattle. [AP Photo/Elaine Thompson]
Published Aug. 11, 2018

The war is over, except no one in Tallahassee has bothered to read the news.

And so Florida continues its daft fight against medical marijuana. All of which means patients are being left behind, voters are getting ignored, and lawyers are buying fancier cars.

As you're probably aware by now, more than 70 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment for medical marijuana nearly two years ago. This was no fluke. Trend lines around the country have been heading in this direction for a decade.

Now if state legislators had wanted to control the industry, they could have expanded their own medical marijuana laws at any point before 2016. But they didn't. So voters did it themselves via the constitutional amendment. And then lawmakers decided they wanted to call the shots, after all.

This led, predictably, to a rash of lawsuits.

And a stack of losses for Florida.

Time after time, the courts have said Florida overstepped its authority by limiting the intent of the constitutional amendment. In the most recent case, a circuit judge said on Aug. 2 that lawmakers erred by trying to limit the number, and organizational structure, of dispensaries.

"Florida is certainly not unique when it comes to challenges, but I suspect it's the most litigation we've seen around the country,'' said attorney Karen O'Keefe, who is the director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. "It's a shame. They're probably just throwing away more money while chilling the will of the voters who voted for this faithfully.''

What's worse is the state refuses to yield.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has filed appeals in a number of the losses, which means the industry will continue to be in upheaval. And taxpayers will continue to foot the bill.

Of course, none of this is surprising. Medical marijuana is a billion-dollar industry, and there is no way that lobbyists and politicians were not going to get a thumb on the scale.

Back when the Legislature was first drawing up these rules, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, warned his colleagues that they were stifling the marketplace and inviting litigation.

He's been proven right on both counts.

By limiting the number of licenses, and basically freezing out smaller, specialized companies, the state has created marijuana cartels. One company approved by the state has already flipped its license for $53 million, even before it began selling its product.

Brandes said the uncertainty created by the lawsuits has persuaded him to re-file legislation that would permit smokable marijuana, remove the cap on dispensaries and do away with the regulation that requires companies to grow, process and sell their product, as opposed to specializing in one aspect.

"The Legislature has got to get involved because this issue is too important to have all of these questions sitting out there,'' Brandes said. "There are a lot of people who thought medical marijuana would be available in a certain manner when they voted, and it hasn't turned out that way.

"I wouldn't blame them if they felt like this was some kind of bait-and-switch.''

Leaders in Tallahassee say they are trying to protect the public by putting safeguards in the manufacturing of marijuana, along with prohibiting patients from smoking the product.

Call me dubious.

The only thing excessive control will do is keep the black market alive while artificially raising the price for patients. And it's interesting the Legislature would stick its nose in the doctor/patient relationship concerning smoking when the outgoing house speaker famously enjoyed doing business over cigars.

This overreach is nothing new for the Legislature.

It has tried to thwart the will of voters with previous constitutional amendments involving school class size, redistricting, solar power and the environment. Considering taxpayers end up footing the bill for the lawsuits that follow, the Legislature has little to lose as long as voters aren't paying attention.

Adam Eland, the CEO of Florigrown, a Tampa medical marijuana treatment center that brought the recent lawsuit challenging the caps on licenses, says he has little faith that the Legislature will suddenly change its ways despite the recent court losses.

His best hope besides the state Supreme Court, which may eventually decide this issue, is that voters send a message in November to legislators who are viewed as anti-medical marijuana.

"Other than that, I can only see a court resolution,'' Eland said. "And that's not going to be pretty.''

Of course, there is one other possibility.

Attorney John Morgan, who spearheaded the medical marijuana amendment in 2016, has floated the idea of another amendment in 2020 that would legalize recreational pot.

Do you suppose legislators will get the message by then?