State Politics

Medical marijuana bill on its way to becoming law; Gov. Scott says he’ll sign it

Samples of cannabis are tested for its purity inside Modern Health Concepts, a South Florida dispensary for medical marijuana that is producing medicine inside its Redland plant on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2016.
Samples of cannabis are tested for its purity inside Modern Health Concepts, a South Florida dispensary for medical marijuana that is producing medicine inside its Redland plant on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2016. cjuste@miamiherald.com

More patients will soon be able to buy medical marijuana in Florida after state lawmakers passed legislation Friday putting into effect a constitutional amendment passed by 71 percent of voters.

Under that constitutional amendment, patients with a number of conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy, are supposed to have access to the drug.

The legislation (SB 8A) passed Friday sets in motion a plan to license 10 new growers by October, bringing the statewide total to 17. It allows patients to use cannabis pills, oils, edibles and “vape” pens with a doctor’s approval but bans smoking.

“Now is the time to do this,” Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said, saying the bill will increase access for patients who need access to the drug.

Lawmakers approved the bill by a 29-6 vote in the Senate and 103-9 in the House.

Gov. Rick Scott said Friday he plans to sign the bill into law. “The constitutional amendment was passed overwhelmingly, and I’m glad the House and Senate were able to come together for a bill that makes sense for our state,” he said.

Legislators were forced to handle the issue in special session after failing to reach agreement during their regular 60-day session that ended in May.

Among the provisions in the bill:

▪  Patients can access the drug if they have chronic pain but only if that pain is connected to another qualifying medical condition.

▪  Ten new growers will get a license to open dispensaries, but as many as eight have been held for specific groups: five for previous applicants to the existing, limited cannabis program, one for a member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association and two for citrus processing companies, which will get priority, not a guaranteed license.

▪  Cities and counties can ban dispensaries, but they are not allowed to block delivery of cannabis or limit where pot shops can open more strictly than they do pharmacies.

“If we fail to implement this amendment, then unfortunately, I think what happens is the courts will be the ones to decide how this amendment is implemented,” House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said.

There is still a chance that will happen, though.

Many activists expect there will be lawsuits over the legislation. And it appears lawmakers expect to be in court, too. They added language separating the bill into pieces so a judge can invalidate part of it without upending the entire system.

At least one lawsuit is already planned. John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the campaign for medical marijuana, has promised to sue over the smoking prohibition.

Patient advocates have generally been supportive of lawmakers moving forward with a bill that is expected to increase access to the drug, but they raise serious concerns about some components of the bill.

Opponents of the Legislature’s language commonly say they want patients to be able to smoke and for those who have chronic pain unconnected to another medical condition to be able to use cannabis.

“No smoking is not what patients voted for,” said Moriah Barnhart of Brandon, whose daughter Dahlia uses cannabis as treatment for brain cancer. “Not allowing this medicine to be used in a public place is extremely discriminatory. … We don’t choose when and where our kids cramp or seize.”

That’s a viewpoint several lawmakers expressed, as well.

“I don’t believe that this bill implements the will of the constitutional amendment that the people of Florida voted for,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “I’ve heard a lot of friends and colleagues say that we’ve got to do something, but that’s not how I feel about this bill. I think we’ve got to do the right thing, not just something.”

That’s not the only voice of opposition, however. Other lawmakers voted against the legislation because they oppose medical marijuana to begin with

“I still think a few people need to tap the brakes and say, ‘Should we be going down this road?’ ” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “No matter what’s in the Constitution, I still have concerns.”

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

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