Health Care

As time runs out, lawmakers work on medical pot deal

With one day left for the Florida Legislature to act, lawmakers say they are close to a deal on medical marijuana.

On Thursday evening, the Senate passed sweeping legislation to implement a system that would allow patients with a wide array of conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder, to buy and use marijuana.

While the Senate’s language, which passed 31-7, is similar to what the House passed earlier this week, several key differences threaten to derail the process.

For one, the House wants marijuana to be tax-free, which the Senate doesn’t. And the Senate restricts the number of dispensaries each marijuana company can open to prevent storefronts opening “on every corner.”

“If this doesn’t work out, this’ll be the reason,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, referring to the limits of dispensaries.

The number of new growers that can be licensed is also a key difference between the bills. The House would hand a license to SunBulb in Southwest Florida. The Senate would give licenses to Treadwell Nursery in Central Florida and Loop’s Nursery in Northeast Florida.

What is clear is this: Lawmakers don’t want to allow smoking but are fine with “vaping” and edibles, and they have tried to make it easier for doctors to become certified in recommending cannabis and for patients to obtain a recommendation from a new doctor.

Lawmakers came to Tallahassee with a mandate to legalize the drug from more than 71 percent of voters who passed Amendment 2.

Over their 60-day legislative session, leaders in the House and Senate have put forward more than a dozen versions of a plan to create what could become one of the nation’s largest cannabis markets. They did so by negotiating behind closed doors.

The stakes are high to pass a bill before adjourning for the weekend Friday: If lawmakers don’t reach agreement, and if the Florida Department of Health doesn’t issue its own regulations by July, any Floridian could sue the state, essentially letting the courts decide.

That’s something House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, has warned against for months.

“If we don’t pass this bill, it won’t come back to us next session,” he told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’ll go to the courts.”

But that may happen, anyway.

On Wednesday, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who bankrolled the constitutional amendment, threatened to sue the state over one of the points of agreement between the House and Senate: a ban on smoking medical pot.

“I will sue and I will win!” Morgan tweeted, along with a link to a Herald/Times story about the latest House deal. The amendment, he contends, allowed for smoking.

“THIS is why politicians are despised,” tweeted Morgan, who is mulling a run for governor in 2018.

Some lawmakers say that’s fine with them.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was an early supporter of medical marijuana and proposed legislation that would have more broadly opened up the marketplace, which was abandoned in favor of Bradley’s legislation early in the legislative session. Brandes said the provisions moving through the Legislature now won’t do what the voters wanted and that the issue may as well be left open to the courts.

The process of writing legislation to implement the will of 71 percent of the electorate and help sick patients hasn’t been transparent enough, he said.

“My concern is you have a major piece of public policy that hasn’t had public discussion,” Brandes said. “As an insider, it’s frustrating to watch. I can only imagine how, as somebody on the outside watching, it is incredibly frustrating.”

Reaching agreement, though, involves negotiating with influential stakeholders beyond the House and Senate: Some of Tallahassee’s most influential lobbyists have clients who hope to profit from medical marijuana, and the amendment passed all but two state House members’ districts with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Plus there’s House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who opposed Amendment 2, and said Thursday that he has been involved in negotiations with the Senate. He said he thinks the language that cleared the House “completely conforms with the constitutional amendment.”

Even if lawmakers can’t reach total agreement, Bradley says this won’t be the last time the issue is up before the Legislature. They’ll have opportunities to try again to make fixes to the law.

“This doesn’t end tomorrow,” Bradley said. “We will be dealing with this issue every session as this product evolves, as this medicine evolves.”

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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