State Politics

Medical marijuana bill draws critics for being too restrictive

Surterra Therapeutics Cultivation Manager Wes Conner walks through one of the rooms within the company’s 6,000-square-foot facility on the outskirts of Tallahassee, where marijuana plants were in their initial stages of growth in June 2016.
Surterra Therapeutics Cultivation Manager Wes Conner walks through one of the rooms within the company’s 6,000-square-foot facility on the outskirts of Tallahassee, where marijuana plants were in their initial stages of growth in June 2016. AP

A powerful Florida House Republican said Tuesday he will consider revising his plan for medical pot after drawing criticism from marijuana supporters.

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who is shepherding the lower chamber’s bill (HB 1397) to expand the distribution of voter-approved medical marijuana, said he’s willing to compromise to ensure the Legislature puts something into law.

“It’s in all of our interests, whether you’re in the House or Senate to make sure you get an implementing bill done this session,” Rodrigues said.

If not, there’s a risk of a lawsuit and rules being written by a judge, he warned.

Rodrigues’ proposal earned initial approval Tuesday from the House Health Quality Subcommittee, which voted 14-1 for the bill.

Critics say the legislation is restrictive and creates barriers to patients. Among the controversial measures:

▪  A requirement that non-terminal patients must have a doctor at least 90 days before they can get a cannabis recommendation.

▪  Bans on smoking, edibles like brownies and “vaping.”

▪  Slow expansion of the number of licensed growers and dispensaries. It grants licenses to seven existing growers, plus five applicants that were denied last year by the Department of Health and one black farmer after 150,000 patients have registered. New applicants would be allowed once there are 200,000 patients.

“This bill gets the policy wrong,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care, the group behind the constitutional amendment. “There are numerous provisions of HB 1397 that I believe are violative of both the spirit and letter of the Florida Constitution and the will of 71 percent of the voters.”

A ballot measure supporting the expansion of medical marijuana passed in November with 71 percent of the vote.

Rodrigues says concerns about the 90-day requirement “resonate” with him. He said smoking likely won’t be allowed but that he might compromise on vaping if physicians are involved in deciding how patients consume marijuana.

The Senate has not yet released its updated legislation (SB 406). But key senators say their bill will include more licenses, eliminate the 90-day requirement and allow “vaping” and possibly edibles.

Several lawmakers on the panel said they opposed medical marijuana. That was a common view in the early part of public testimony on the issue, when groups openly opposed to medical cannabis praised the House’s effort.

Chief among them is the Drug Free America Foundation, created by the St. Petersburg shopping center magnates and Republican financiers Mel and Betty Sembler. The Semblers spent $1 million to try to defeat Amendment 2 in November.

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

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