1. Opinion

Let the free market work for medical marijuana | Editorial

Republicans who control the Florida Legislature love to trumpet their support for the free market and opposition to government regulation. Yet too many of them are inclined to promote micromanaging and impractical regulations when it suits their political agenda. Case in point: Medical marijuana, where it has taken a judge to embrace the free market principles the legislators rejected.

In 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use, much to the dismay of many conservative politicians. Instead of creating a sensible legal framework, lawmakers and the Department of Health devised a Byzantine regulatory system. It includes an unreasonably low cap on the number of licenses for companies that wanted to get into the medical marijuana business. The rules also favor "vertical integration," which requires licensees to grow, process, package and sell the product without much outside help.

The set-up has been inefficient in ways that a first-year economics student would have recognized. It curtailed production, limited innovation, slowed implementation, increased prices and created marijuana shortages. And it created a handful of cartels that control the entire industry and are sitting on gold mines. The so-called champions of free enterprise had taken a page from the Soviets' playbook, the one that brought on famines and crushed entrepreneurial spirit. They either didn't know better, which makes them incompetent, or they did it on purpose, which makes them firm but flexible in their political rhetoric. Either way, they wasted time and money and defied the will of the voters.

Fortunately, the 1st District Court of Appeal injected a dose of sanity earlier this month. The three-judge panel ruled that the system is unconstitutional and inconsistent with the constitutional amendment. The panel called the caps "unreasonable."

The court did not lay out a blueprint for how it should be done, but there are some obvious improvements. Don't make companies handle every part of the process. Growers aren't necessarily any good at packaging or selling. The forced vertical integration drives up costs, and it freezes out smaller farms that can't afford to take on the other steps. Also, let independent dispensaries sell medical marijuana produced by any licensed grower. That way patients have more choices at a variety of price points.

The good news is that Gov. Ron DeSantis and some key lawmakers, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, have taken a more progressive and practical approach to medical marijuana. When he took office earlier this year, the governor referred to vertical integration as a cartel and vowed to drop court appeals in other marijuana related cases. Brandes has said that the limited number of licenses inflates prices and contributes to shortages, neither of which benefits patients.

Acknowledging the problem is a start. The hard work comes in hammering out the details and keeping any remaining obstructionists in the Legislature from again corrupting the process. The voters spoke, loud and clear. It's time they got a simple and effective system for growing and selling medical marijuana.