Backed by voters, medical marijuana laws start to take shape in Capitol

Vials of medical marijuana oil. [Monica Herndon | Tampa Bay Times]
Vials of medical marijuana oil. [Monica Herndon | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 25, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Jacel Delgadillo is still waiting for her 5-year-old son Bruno to be able to use medical marijuana legally in Florida.

Bruno suffers from a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome. When he started using cannabis, Bruno went from having hundreds of seizures a week to fewer than five. Though voters in November overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that eases access to medical marijuana, Delgadillo frets that lawmakers are reversing course, hashing out plans that would further limit access to the drug.

Seventy-one percent of voters approved the measure, but it's "something completely different" than what lawmakers are now considering, said Delgadillo, who lives in Miami.

She worries Florida's laws will ban edibles and smoking the drug — so-called whole-plant use that she says voters expected to be legal. Caps on the number of businesses that can grow and sell the drug might limit the variety of cannabis available to her son, she said.

In recent weeks, the state Senate and the Florida Department of Health released proposals that would mostly keep control of the marijuana market in the hands of a few companies licensed to grow marijuana, process it and sell oils and pills to patients. Leaders in the Florida House, which have not yet released a plan, say they are inclined to do the same.

Instead of creating a whole new marijuana system, the Senate and health department proposed adding new patients to an existing, limited program passed two years ago. It allows terminally ill people to use full-strength marijuana and certain patients, including children with severe epilepsy, to use strains of cannabis low in the chemical THC, which causes a high.

Rules proposed by the health department ahead of public hearings across the state would allow only the seven currently licensed growers to produce and sell medical marijuana to the larger market. They also want to restrict marijuana's use to a list of specific medical conditions including cancer and HIV and require that the state Board of Medicine approve any changes, though Amendment 2 gives doctors freedom to recommend the drug when they think it is appropriate.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, proposed allowing the current growers to run the market. But his bill (SB 406) requires that five additional growers be licensed within six months of there being 250,000 patients in the state.

The Florida House, which has not yet made public its medical marijuana plan, is thinking along similar lines, said Health Quality Chairman Cary Pigman, an ER doctor, but with a much more rapid expansion in the number and diversity of growers.

"I would imagine we're going to get to over 100,00 pretty quickly," Pigman, R-Avon Park said. "I think there's a lot of pent-up demand, and we're going to see that expand pretty rapidly."

So far, neither the state nor the Legislature has show interest in allowing businesses to specialize on growing, producing marijuana products or selling.

That might be okay in the beginning, said Andrew Freedman, Colorado's former marijuana czar. But in the long run, it could be less efficient and give growers more influence in Tallahassee.

"I would expect to see better lobbying teams if you have only a few," he said to a lobbyist-packed room in the state Capitol. "You will feel greater pressure."

Critics worry the current growers may not be able to supply enough marijuana for a market that could expand from fewer than 2,000 patients now to hundreds of thousands of users under Amendment 2.

Ben Pollara, who managed the Amendment 2 campaign, said the health department's rules are "in direct contradiction" of the state Constitution and that the Senate is off to "an encouraging start." But he's wary of laws limiting the number of growers and preventing companies from focusing only on growing, selling or extracting the chemicals to make cannabis oils and pills.

"You're not going to have a diverse set of products for these patients," he told the Times/Herald. "And the person or persons who might be best equipped to grow the best marijuana may not be the best equipped to do the best extractions."

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.