State Politics

Florida’s medical marijuana expansion legislation headed to Gov. Rick Scott

Medical marijuana sits on display in a store in Denver.
Medical marijuana sits on display in a store in Denver. MCT

Terminally ill patients will be allowed to use full-strength medical marijuana under a bill passed Monday that would expand the drug’s use in Florida.

HB 307 expands existing law that allows patients with seizure disorders, such as intractable epilepsy, and cancer to have access to a non-euphoric strain of cannabis.

It also solidifies a system that could give growers who already have licenses a head start on an even larger market if a proposed constitutional amendment passes in November’s election. That amendment, which appears to have broad public support, would further expand the ailments eligible for medical marijuana.

The Senate passed HB 307 on a bipartisan 28-11 vote and sent it to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature or veto. A spokeswoman for the governor said his office is reviewing the legislation.

Patients were supposed to have access to the non-euphoric cannabis more than a year ago, but legal fights between competing interests who have been excluded from licenses caused delays — a system Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, called “the swampland of greed and money.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsored the bill in the Senate, which grew from a two-page expansion of the state’s Right to Try law to a 29-page proposal that includes regulations and provisions for additional licenses. He said it will end the delays from litigation by allowing additional licenses to be granted to nurseries whose court challenges are successful.

“People are waiting,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “There are people who need treatment. I’m not saying this bill is perfect ... but this is the best we have.”

The new measure effectively does two things to shore up the market for medical marijuana:

▪  Dramatically expands the potential number of patients, giving the few companies authorized to grow the product a dramatically larger market base.

▪  Allows for three additional licenses to grow and distribute the various strains of marijuana, but only after the state has registered 250,000 patients, more than any other state to date.

Under the 2014 law, only one grower in each of five regions of the state can grow, distribute and sell cannabis. More than 20 groups applied for the Department of Health licenses.

Several of those who were denied licenses have challenged the ruling in court, and current and prospective growers pressed the Legislature to change the law. Costa Farms fueled its efforts with $270,000 in campaign contributions to legislators’ and parties’ political campaigns.

“Does this set up a state-sanctioned drug cartel, which is what it is?” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked. “Yes, it does. You’re basically mandating that five families get wealthy.”

The House and Senate both voted down attempts to include additional conditions and allow for more licenses to be granted, or at the very least for lower thresholds for expanded licenses.

Debating the issue Monday, some senators voiced concern that the five growers approved by the Department of Health have not shown they are capable of growing full-strength marijuana or handling distribution and retail sales. Others worry that Bradley’s bill won’t fix problems in the existing licensing system that led to the two-year wait for patients.

“We ought to fix the way it works,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, “but the idea of saying, 'We think this is taking too long and therefore we’re going to pick winners and losers in that process,’ I think this is a dangerous precedent.”

If there are still problems, lawmakers could be back fixing the medical marijuana system in future years. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he plans a full rewrite of marijuana laws. And Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he hopes lawmakers can come back and make tweaks to the current structure.

“We need to pass this, make changes next year and the next if we need to and get it going,” Montford said.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Related stories from Miami Herald