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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Making progress on medical marijuana

Advocacy from the governor, Florida's new pot czar and a favorable court ruling help clear the way for a robust industry.

Medical marijuana is finally gaining real traction in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis has made clear he wants lawmakers to pass a bill allowing smoking, the state has its first "pot czar," and a judge has again struck down a limit on storefronts that can sell medical marijuana. While some in Tallahassee keep trying to pump the brakes, Floridians are ready for a well-regulated, robust and accessible medical marijuana market.

DeSantis made the first move in January when he set a deadline of mid-March for the Legislature to send him a bill ending the ban on smokable forms of marijuana for medicinal use. If they don't, he said, he'll drop the state's appeal of a lawsuit challenging the ban. That may well be the most expedient course, given the perplexing attitudes about medical pot held by some state senators. After Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, introduced a straightforward repeal bill, it got polluted by an unnecessary amendment that forces doctors to explain the risks associated with smoking and allows non-terminal patients to smoke only if two doctors say it's the only good means of administering the drug. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, called marijuana a "very dangerous substance" and drew an ominous link to the opioid crisis. Those remarks are irresponsible and untrue: Medical marijuana is not dangerous — in fact, it offers a safe alternative to the highly addictive opioids that are killing thousands of Floridians a year.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried appointed Florida's first director of cannabis, who will oversee the agriculture department's involvement in the state medical marijuana program, direct rule-making for edibles and advocate for patients. The choice of Holly Bell, from Nashville, upset some industry insiders who were expecting a homegrown pick. But Bell has a background in banking and could work to ease the restrictions on how medical marijuana can be transacted. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so federal banking regulations mean the industry is largely a cash-only business. State CFO Jimmy Patronis took the proactive step last week of seeking guidance from the Trump administration on how banks cans service the industry without risking federal prosecution.

Finally, the state's cap on marijuana dispensaries was struck down — again — by a circuit judge who found that the limit "erects barriers that needlessly increase patients' costs, risks and inconvenience." A 2017 law set an initial cap of 25 dispensaries for each marijuana provider, gradually increasing as the number of patients increases. But the constitutional amendment approved by nearly 72 percent of voters in 2016 says nothing about caps, and lawmakers went overboard in trying to inhibit the industry's growth, instead of letting market demand drive it.

In his recent testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, William Barr, President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, indicated that the Justice Department won't go after medical marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state laws. The governor has staked his position on the side of patients and the industry has an empowered new advocate in Tallahassee. All of that is a breath of fresh air for Florida, and further reason for state lawmakers to eliminate barriers to access and honor the voters' will.