Florida Politics

Medical marijuana advocates call for special session after lawmakers’ inaction

Medical marijuana
Medical marijuana Miami

Supporters of legalized medical marijuana are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to order a special session after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have implemented a ballot measure approved by 71 percent of voters in November.

Under the constitutional amendment, it is up to the Florida Department of Health to write rules that would let patients with conditions like cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis access to marijuana.

But some marijuana activists and patient advocates worry that the DOH won’t write adequate rules.

“DOH has a responsibility to implement this,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care and one of the writers of Amendment 2. “That’s all the more reason that we actually need implementing legislation.”

Pollara joined a chorus of lobbyists and lawmakers who say the Legislature needs to play a role — even if it’s in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who pushed a medical marijuana bill, said he isn’t confident the DOH rules will be in line with bills the Legislature put forward, which had broad agreement on many issues, even though they couldn’t reach a final deal Friday.

“That’s a real concern and the Legislature at some point in time needs to have a bill that implements Amendment 2,” he said Friday night. “We’ve provided the basis and the groundwork to get this done eventually. It just isn’t going to be during this session.”

On Saturday, John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the Amendment 2 campaign, called for Scott to call the Legislature back to Tallahassee in a special session focused on cannabis.

United for Care, the campaign committee Morgan chaired that wrote the constitutional amendment, gave DOH the power to implement medical marijuana. Still, he said handing it off entirely to the department will likely result in fewer licensed growers — and less access for patients.

“It’s a bureaucrat carrying out the will of the people instead of their representatives,” Morgan said Saturday. “It’s perverted.”

Asked Saturday if Scott would call a special session and what he wanted to see in DOH rules, a spokeswoman for the governor said simply, “Our office is reviewing our options on this issue.”

Weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate behind closed doors broke down in the final days of the legislative session over proposed caps. The sticking point: the number of dispensaries each licensed marijuana grower could open. The issue was so divisive that the two men behind Amendment 2 squabbled on opposite sides, actively pushing against the other’s proposal.

Senators, aiming to prevent one or two growers from dominating the marketplace, pushed to limit the number of storefronts each could open. That idea was put forward by Pollara, who ran the United for Care campaign last year.

Meanwhile, the House, where Morgan was working directly with Speaker Richard Corcoran, sought no caps, arguing that the free market would allow for high-quality cannabis at low prices.

On most other points, the two chambers of the Legislature found agreement. Notably, they planned to remove restrictions that patients feared would make it too hard to get a doctor’s recommendation for the drug, make medical marijuana tax-free and allow vaping and edibles.

It’s not yet clear what DOH will do with the rules now that it has control.

The department published draft, placeholder rules in January that would have given the seven existing growers licensed under the state’s limited cannabis program all the business of what could someday be a $1 billion industry. But DOH had signaled that they were waiting on the Legislature to act.

They’ll now go back to the drawing board to write sweeping public policy that patients, advocates, business interests and doctors will scrutinize. Several have already said they’ll consider suing if they don’t like the rules DOH comes up with.

“Regardless of what myself or Florida for Care does on it, it’s going to be ripe for challenge from the patient side and the physician side and the businesses,” Pollara said.

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