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  1. Florida Politics

John Morgan and other medical pot supporters call for special session after Legislature's inaction

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R- Estero, left, talks with Rep. James Grant, Tampa, on the medical marijuana legislation during Friday's House floor session. Listening in the center are Rep. Alexandra Miller, R- Sarasota, and Rep. Mel Ponder, R- Destin. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 7, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Supporters of legalized medical marijuana are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to order a special session after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill to implement a ballot measure approved by 71 percent of voters in November.

On Saturday, John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the Amendment 2 campaign, called for the Legislature to be brought back to Tallahassee in a special session focused on cannabis.

Morgan objected to the Florida Department of Health being the lone entity to write rules that would let patients with conditions like cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis access marijuana.

Absent lawmakers agreeing to rules, the amendment that Morgan pushed and helped to write allows for the Department of Health to make the rules. Still, he said, handing it off entirely to the department will likely result in fewer licensed growers — and less access for patients.

"It's a bureaucrat carrying out the will of the people instead of their representatives," Morgan said Saturday. "It's perverted."

Other marijuana activists and patient advocates also worried that the Department of Health won't write adequate rules without the proper guidance from lawmakers.

"DOH has a responsibility to implement this," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care and one of the writers of Amendment 2. "That's all the more reason that we actually need implementing legislation."

Pollara joined Morgan and others, lobbyists and lawmakers, who say the Legislature needs to play a role — even if it's in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who pushed a medical marijuana bill, said he isn't confident the Department of Health rules will be in line with bills the Legislature put forward, which had broad agreement on many issues, even though they couldn't reach a final deal Friday.

"That's a real concern and the Legislature at some point in time needs to have a bill that implements Amendment 2," he said Friday night. "We've provided the basis and the groundwork to get this done eventually. It just isn't going to be during this session."

Asked Saturday if Scott would call a special session and what he wanted to see in health department rules, a spokeswoman for the governor said simply, "Our office is reviewing our options on this issue."

Weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate behind closed doors broke down in the final days of the legislative session over proposed caps. The sticking point: the number of dispensaries each licensed marijuana grower could open. The issue was so divisive that the two men behind Amendment 2, Morgan and Pollara, squabbled on opposite sides.

Senators, aiming to prevent one or two growers from dominating the marketplace, pushed to limit the number of storefronts each could open. Pollara, who ran the United for Care campaign last year, openly advocated the idea and called on activists to demand the Senate language pass.

Meanwhile, the House, where Morgan was quietly working alongside Speaker Richard Corcoran, sought no caps, arguing that the free market would allow for high-quality cannabis at low prices.

On Saturday, Morgan took to Twitter and accused Pollara of selling out.

"(Ben) breached the trust of those who trusted and used my good name in his shenanigans," Morgan tweeted, forcing Pollara to tweet denials.

On most other points, the two chambers of the Legislature found agreement. Notably, they planned to remove restrictions that patients feared would make it too hard to get a doctor's recommendation for the drug, make medical marijuana tax-free and allow vaping and edibles.

It's not yet clear what the Department of Health will do with the rules now that it has control.

The department published draft, placeholder rules in January, but had signaled it was waiting on the Legislature to act.

Health officials now go back to the drawing board to write sweeping public policy that patients, advocates, business interests and doctors are sure to scrutinize.

"Regardless of what myself or Florida for Care does on it, it's going to be ripe for challenge from the patient side and the physician side and the businesses," Pollara said.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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