Health Care

Florida House gets comfortable with medical marijuana, but says no to smoking it

The Florida House passed legislation that would put medical marijuana into effect in the state after making last-minute changes released by bill sponsors Tuesday morning.

Under the House’s proposal (HB 1397), patients with a list of conditions — including cancer, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy — could be certified to obtain medical marijuana by a doctor. The bill also says that patients with chronic pain can access the drug, but only if that pain is directly linked to a debilitating condition that would have qualified them regardless.

The bill passed 105-9 with votes against it coming from some of the House’s most liberal and most conservative members.

Restrictions and limitations in the bill — including a limited number of license holders and a ban on smoking — are inspired by concerns that the federal government might decide Florida’s medical cannabis program is too unregulated, House sponsor and Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues of Estero said.

“We have to make it legal and available to Florida residents, but we have to do it in such a way that it complies to the guidance we’ve been given by the federal government,” he said.

The bill represents the largest number of new growers proposed to date by the House. It would automatically give the potentially very lucrative license to the seven growers currently licensed under a more limited cannabis program, plus 10 new growers right off the bat. After that, four new growers could enter the market for every 100,000 patients.

According to Rodrigues, “95 percent” of the language in the legislation represents a compromise with the Florida Senate, which is expected to take up its bill for the first time on Wednesday.

Some House Democrats raised concerns that the bill was too restrictive. Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and other liberal Democrats said the bill should allow all patients with chronic pain and permit smoking, which it bans outright.

“Last time I checked, Florida was the Sunshine State not a nanny state,” Smith said. “Who are we to tell legitimate patients they cannot smoke their cannabis? That’s not our business.”

The group behind Amendment 2, which set this legislation in motion, said they do not support Rodrigues’ language.

“HB 1397 puts profits over patient access,” Florida for Care executive director Ben Pollara said in a statement. “It not only maintains but strengthens the cartel system of licensed marijuana growers in Florida. … Prices will be high, quality will be low and choices will be few.”

Conservative lawmakers, meanwhile said Rodrigues’ proposal puts into place something that, though approved by 71 percent of voters last November, ought not be part of state law.

“I don’t believe that medical marijuana exists. I just don’t,” said Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Sarasota, one of three medical doctors in the Florida House. “I’m stuck as a physician.”

He likened medical marijuana to the myth that surrounds Gasparilla.

But Rodrigues, who did not vote for Amendment 2, says the bill represents a compromise between open access for patients and the restrictions that come from cannabis being classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the federal government.