Even after Tuesday, uncertainty clouds medical marijuana in Florida

Vials of medical marijuana oil. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Vials of medical marijuana oil. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 13, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Even though Floridians voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to allow medical marijuana, patients are months away from being able to purchase the drug.

Before growers can put plants in the ground or dispensaries can open their doors, state health regulators face a July deadline of writing rules to govern an expanded medical marijuana program. And this spring, the Florida Legislature will undoubtedly consider a cannabis bill as well.

Complicating matters is an existing law that lets a limited number of patients use strains of marijuana low in THC — which causes a euphoric high — and the terminally ill use full-strength cannabis. Six nurseries are already growing, processing and dispensing cannabis under the existing program.

Amendment 2 is broader, allowing doctors to recommend full-strength marijuana as a treatment for a long list of conditions, including glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and cancer. It authorizes the Florida Department of Health to license growers, labs for extracting chemical components from the marijuana and dispensaries to sell the drug.

"It's like raising the speed limit from 5 miles per hour to 65 miles per hour," said John Morgan, the chairman and primary donor to the political committee that pushed Amendment 2, United for Care. "It's going to be that dramatic."

Lawmakers have three options for what to do next:

• Create a new set of laws for a larger medical marijuana program with a number of licenses available for growers, dispensaries and others in the industry.

• Do little or no expansion of the existing program, allowing the six nurseries with marijuana licenses to maintain control of the market.

• Do nothing and allow two separate cannabis programs.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has advocated for medical marijuana in the Legislature for three years, said he is already working on a bill to regulate marijuana. He believes it will be the only major bill on the subject in the Senate.

In its current form, the bill would end the existing program, he said, noting it doesn't make sense to have two sets of rules. What's more, he wants to allow more people to grow, process and sell cannabis.

"I am not willing to compromise about opening up the market, period, full stop," Brandes said. "We are going to have a free market system here in Florida."

The Department of Health has not started to act on new regulations.

"The department will follow the will of the voters," spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said Thursday. "The constitutional amendment goes into effect on Jan. 3, 2017. Until then, current law stands."

In a document outlining its intent, United for Care wrote last month that it wants to avoid "arbitrary or overly restrictive limits" on nurseries or dispensaries, which they say ought to be licensed separately.

That sentiment could be challenged by state lawmakers, who this past spring voted down proposals to have more growers in the state.

What's more, prominent legislators are likely to support tough regulations on medical marijuana, including House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and incoming Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Both opposed Amendment 2.

The nurseries that have cannabis licenses, as well as businesses that hope to gain a foothold in the state, are lining up big-dollar lobbyists to advocate for them in Tallahassee.

But Brandes warns that attempts to derail a medical marijuana bill would end badly.

Amendment 2 essentially goes into effect even if the state does nothing to create regulations. That would set in motion a court battle.

"That would be the absolute worst-case scenario for everybody, but especially the patients," Brandes said.

After it was clear the amendment would pass Tuesday, the No on 2 campaign urged the Legislature to pass additional restrictions banning candy-like products, limiting THC levels and "tightly" regulating the medical conditions eligible for cannabis.

Already, local governments have started to act in response to the amendment's passage. Miami Beach on Wednesday passed a four-month moratorium on dispensaries.

Lawyer Jonathan Robbins, who leads the regulated substances task force at the Akerman law firm, says very few things are clear about how Florida's medical marijuana drama will play out.

Just one thing is certain, said Robbins: Unless you have permission under the existing cannabis program, no, you cannot start using medical marijuana yet. And it could be a while before patients have broader access.

"It's certainly fair to say the Legislature's been slow to act, the DOH has had some trouble rolling out the 2014 (low-THC cannabis) program," Robbins said. "I don't know why this would be any different."

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.