State Politics

Door shuts in Tallahassee on full-fledged medical marijuana

MEDICAL MARIJUANA DEBATE: Republican leaders in Tallahassee aren’t buying the political calculation that they must pass a medical marijuana law now to take the issue off the table during next year’s presidential race.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA DEBATE: Republican leaders in Tallahassee aren’t buying the political calculation that they must pass a medical marijuana law now to take the issue off the table during next year’s presidential race. MCT

Noneuphoric pot may nudge forward in the Florida Legislature this year, but the window for a full-fledged medical marijuana system has all but slammed shut.

A bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would allow broad use of medical marijuana has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. Neither has a companion House bill sponsored by Reps. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and John Wood, R-Winter Haven. The deadline for that is today. The Republican leadership in neither chamber made passage of a medical marijuana plan a high priority, despite a statewide November ballot measure that won 58 percent of voters’ approval.

“We are in legislative purgatory,” Brandes said Monday. “It’s difficult to see how my bill moves forward at this point.”

Brandes’ bill would have allowed doctors to qualify patients with several diagnoses and symptoms and would have allowed treatment with any strain of marijuana. Counties would decide on how many marijuana dispensaries would operate in their jurisdictions.

But so far, the Legislature seems more focused on implementing a low-THC, non-euphoric pot often called “Charlotte’s Web,’’ which desperate parents want for children with severe seizures. THC is tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient in marijuana that leads to a “high.”

The Legislature approved use of that marijuana strain last year, but fighting over proposed regulations has delayed implementation, meaning it’s still not available in Florida legally. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee will consider a proposed remedy to that problem at a hearing Tuesday.

If that low-THC bill makes it to the Senate floor, Brandes said, he will try to expand it via amendment — but such end runs around the committee process are traditionally a long shot, particularly on a topic as controversial as medical marijuana.

“I don’t see the Legislature dipping full scale into this,’’ said Brian Ballard, a prominent lobbyist who represents several nurseries hoping to enter the pot business.

The notion of pot for medical purposes gained political currency in Florida two years ago, when Orlando attorney and prominent Democrat John Morgan bankrolled a constitutional amendment campaign to legalize it. The proposed amendment gained 58 per cent of the vote in November, short of the 60 percent it needed to pass.

United for Care, the group Morgan founded, filed a new amendment petition for the 2016 election ballot, then signaled it would drop the petition drive if the Legislature passed a “meaningful” medical marijuana system this session.

But Ben Pollara, United for Care’s executive director, said medical marijuana is now “on life support” in Tallahassee.

With no committee hearings scheduled, a floor vote would only come through a strong push from leadership, Pollara said, “and I don’t see that happening.

“Leadership has been silent on this,’’ he said. “At first we took that as a good sign. If they had decided to say 'No’ they could have killed it in its cradle. Now their silence has become deafening.’’

The 2016 legislative session would be too late to derail an amendment vote, Pollara said. To get on the ballot, United for Care must submit 683,149 petition signatures by Feb. 1. And while next year’s session will start in January, it won’t end until sometime in March.

The group has collected about 50,000 petitions just from volunteers and the group’s web site. Barring an unexpected legislative turnaround in the next few weeks, the group will soon begin to pay professional signature gatherers to hit is target, Pollara said.

Ballard, the lobbyist, said legislators did not want to venture into a full-fledged marijuana system until they see how the non-euphoric pot might work.

That legislation, passed at the end of last year’s session, allows strains of pot with .8 percent or less of THC . Epileptic children in other states have reportedly benefited from it.

But the Legislature approved only five growing and dispensing companies for Charlotte’s Web. With dozens of potential applicants, regulators first suggested a lottery, then shifted to a system based on qualifications.

This year’s Senate Bill 7066 would allow up to 20 dispensing licenses for Charlotte’s Web. Growers would still have to show they have been in the nursery business for 30 years and meet other qualifications. If more than 20 applicants qualified, then a lottery would decide between them.

The bill would also expand the number of qualifying diseases and methods of delivery to include cream, edibles and vaporizers — basically everything but smoking.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who leads the Florida Sheriff’s Association lobbying effort, said legislators feared that even if they voted for a more comprehensive system, United for Care would still move forward with the new constitutional amendment.

Some think they can also defeat a new amendment by passing “something” in the 2016 session, Gualtieri said.

“If we have 58 percent of the people voting and two legislative sessions later there is nothing, then the argument that this should not be in the (state) Constitution is not going to resonate,’’ Gualtieri said.

“Some legislators think they still have a window to do something in 2016.”

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com

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