Gov. Rick Scott signs laws restricting abortions, allowing medical marijuana

Gov. Rick Scott’s signature also strips money from abortion clinics for cancer screenings.
Gov. Rick Scott’s signature also strips money from abortion clinics for cancer screenings.
Published March 26, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Abortion clinics will face tougher rules and terminal patients will be able to use full-strength medical marijuana under new state laws.

The measures — among the legislative session's most contentious — were two of 68 bills Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Friday afternoon. He also issued his first veto of the session, blocking a referendum to create a utility board in Gainesville.

Starting July 1, abortion clinics will be required to have admitting privileges or transfer agreements with a nearby hospital. They also will face annual inspections by the state as part of a law that sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said is about ensuring women's safety.

"What we did with these clinics is just treat them similar to other surgery centers," Stargel said.

Critics say similar provisions in Texas led about 20 clinics to shut down. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court could rule that law unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has an ongoing lawsuit over a mandatory 24-hour abortion waiting period passed last year, said it hasn't decided whether it will sue the state over the new law. The organization did decry Scott's decision in a statement by executive director Howard Simon.

"Anyone who has lived in Florida during the Rick Scott administration cannot be surprised by his signature on this legislation restricting women's access to health care," Simon said.

The bill goes further, blocking state money for cancer screenings and sexually transmitted disease tests from any clinic that performs elective abortions.

State law already bans funding abortions, but supporters of the change say nearly $200,000 spent annually on preventive care at the clinics amounts to indirectly funding the abortions themselves.

Lawmakers wrote the new measure following last summer's controversy over videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood officials talking about their fetal tissue donation program.

The law redefines the trimesters of a pregnancy, validating claims by state regulators last summer alleging Florida's Planned Parenthood sites violated their licenses. And the funding cuts could affect six Planned Parenthood clinics.

The other controversial health care bill Scott signed Friday allows terminally ill patients to use full-strength medical marijuana.

Lawmakers tacked on additional provisions to address a 2014 law giving people with certain conditions — such as children who suffer from severe seizures — access to a form of marijuana that doesn't cause a euphoric high.

Under the new law, nurseries which were not approved for the low-THC marijuana by the Department of Health could receive additional licenses, allowing the five selected nurseries to begin production and granting an additional license.

"Finally, we have escaped the bureaucratic morass of challenges and appeals," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the House sponsor. "This legislation ratifies six licenses and greenlights the path directly to patients."

But in legislative hearings, critics warned the law could give nurseries already licensed by the Department of Health a leg up if voters legalize medical marijuana more broadly in a constitutional amendment on this November's ballot. One such nursery, Costa Farms, spent more than $300,000 in campaign contributions to key lawmakers, state parties and the governor.

Gaetz said those donations are "a necessity" to "communicate the truth about the benefits of cannabis reform."

Still, he said, voters should not turn to constitutional amendments to legalize medical marijuana, instead relying on the Legislature.

"I hope we are proving to the voters of Florida that a constitutional amendment is not the proper way to advance cannabis reform," Gaetz said. "Constitutional language cannot be easily changed or tailored to evolving medical strategies. State statutes can."

A similar ballot item gained support from more than half of voters in 2014 but failed to earn the 60 percent needed to amend the state Constitution.

Some of the other measures signed Friday include:

• Policies to help the criminal justice system better treat mental illness.

• Changes to how property tax disputes are resolved by county Value Adjustment Boards, a priority for Miami-Dade Public Schools, which says lengthy delays in tax collection have short-changed public schools by millions of dollars.

• Expanded anti-corruption laws to include contractors and requiring a lesser burden of proof in corruption cases.

• More authority for physician assistants to write prescriptions.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this story. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.