State Politics

Terminal patients’ cannabis proposal becomes battleground for marijuana in Florida

Marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light at a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle.
Marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light at a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle. AP

Terminally ill patients could soon be allowed to use medical marijuana to ease their pain under proposals that passed House and Senate panels Tuesday.

Lawmakers had intended to widen two state laws: one that permits terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs and another that lets five nurseries grow medical marijuana with low levels of the euphoric chemical THC.

But the bills are becoming a battleground in the Capitol for full-fledged medical pot after a handful of House Republicans joined Democrats to throw out existing nursery regulations, casting what bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley called a “simple” piece of legislation into chaos.

“We have this right-to-try legislation and we’re just putting cannabis in it,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, explained to the Senate Health Policy committee about the proposal for terminally ill patients. “And we have this dispensing organization apparatus that we set up and we’re not disturbing it.”

While House and Senate committees both endorsed the concept of expanding medical marijuana to patients who have been told they have a year to live, the two proposals are now dramatically different.

Bradley’s Senate version (SB 460) keeps regulations used by the Department of Health to grant licenses for nurseries to grow low-THC cannabis for children suffering from severe epilepsy and cancer: 30 years as a licensed nursery in Florida and the capacity for 400,000 plants. The five licensed nurseries are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

But in the House, lawmakers are now considering a bill (HB 307) that allows 20 growers that don’t need to be the original five nurseries and don’t need to have the same qualifications.

The inspiration for the change is a concern raised by a group of black farmers that tough licensing rules favor long-established companies and box out newcomers, including many African-Americans. The Florida Legislative Black Caucus took up their cause two weeks ago.

“We have been struggling with this thing for a long time, getting this equal representation for the black farmers,” said Howard Gunn, president of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. “The way they came up with those five growers, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.”

The misalignment between the House and Senate means Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Bradley are going back to the drawing board to come up with compromise language.

How the state regulates these first steps into medical marijuana could have long-term consequences. With the possibility that full-fledged medical marijuana could be legalized by a 2016 ballot measure, the rules put in place by the Legislature will form a natural starting point.

“Absolutely one of the benefits of building a regulatory system is so that you’re not caught flat-footed,” Bradley said.

No matter how the regulatory details are negotiated, the Gaetz and Bradley proposals have supporters in people like Cathy Jordan, the president of the Florida Cannabis Action Network. The Parrish resident has been living with ALS for 29 years and has permission from the state attorney in Manatee County to grow marijuana that has been prescribed to her.

“Cannabis should be the first option for patients, rather than the last resort,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, speaking on behalf of Jordan, who came to Tallahassee for Tuesday’s hearings. “No one should have to go through what I did to get their medication.”

Still, some lawmakers are leery of the changed proposal and urged lawmakers to tap the brakes.

“We’ve got a train wreck here,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who voted against the bill. “We’ve got confusion. Here’s an amendment that turned it upside down at the last minute.”

Others raised concerns that licensing for low-THC cannabis growers underway at the Department of Health could be derailed.

Bradley said he worries that any distraction could further delay the already legal, low-THC cannabis from reaching the children it’s supposed to help.

“I want [DOH] to issue licenses. I want them to focus on the job we gave them two years ago,” Bradley said. “I don’t want to give them another job.”

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

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