1. Opinion

Editorial: Legislature needs special session on medical marijuana

Lawmakers should be called back to Tallahassee for a special session to pass a comprehensive bill making medical pot reasonably accessible.
Lawmakers should be called back to Tallahassee for a special session to pass a comprehensive bill making medical pot reasonably accessible.
Published May 11, 2017

Amendment 2, the medical marijuana initiative, passed with 71 percent voter support last year but is considerably less popular with state lawmakers. That explains why the legislative session ended with no agreement on implementing the amendment, leaving sick Floridians in limbo and major policy decisions to be hashed out in court. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron — or Gov. Rick Scott — should call lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special session to pass a comprehensive bill making medical pot reasonably accessible to patients across Florida.

Amendment 2 authorizes doctors to recommend medical use of marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis. It also authorizes caregivers to help patients obtain and use marijuana and the Department of Health to create a database regulating doctors, patients, caregivers and dispensing organizations. Lawmakers, at the session's outset, took those simple directives and turned them into an opportunity to push new restrictions on what forms the drug could take, extend the timetable before patients could obtain it and specify that chronic pain alone would not qualify. They also proposed tight barriers to expanding the medical marijuana market, protecting the monopoly of the state's seven current license holders. Even so, negotiations nearly yielded an imperfect but workable compromise. Senate and House bills would have allowed edible and vaping products (though both unreasonably banned smokable pot), permitted marijuana to treat chronic pain linked to a qualifying condition and made medical marijuana tax-free.

The effort collapsed in the final hour over how to expand the market. The Senate wanted to cap the number of storefronts each marijuana grower could open at 15 to prevent a few companies from monopolizing; the House favored a limit of 100. While both chambers favored maintaining the current structure — known as vertical integration — that requires license holders to grow, process and dispense the drug, the Senate would have granted 10 new licenses immediately. The House would have allowed up to a year before any new companies could enter the market. Those details would limit patient access, and any rules that hinder market expansion do not serve Floridians who are waiting and suffering.

By failing to pass a bill, the Legislature abdicated its duty to the Department of Health and the courts. With no law on the books, implementation falls next to department regulators, which does not bode well for patient access. The department's draft rules, released in January, kept even tighter limits on expanding the market and, worst of all, left it to the state Board of Medicine to determine what conditions would qualify — a decision the amendment clearly leaves to doctors. If the department maintains that stingy approach to rule-writing, lawsuits will surely follow, from patients being denied access and companies prevented from entering the market. All of that will just delay the launch of a robust, statewide medical marijuana apparatus that brings relief to patients.

Medical marijuana could soon become a billion-dollar industry in Florida affecting hundreds of thousands of patients. Negron and Corcoran have both indicated a willingness to call a special session on the issue. They should do it, and lawmakers should shake off their discomfort with this new market and fulfill their duty to pass a law that puts reasonable regulations in place while ensuring widespread access as the voters expect.