Op-Ed

Florida Legislature fails to agree on medical marijuana

By Frank Cerabino

The Palm Beach Post

A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. AP

Florida’s medical marijuana bill turned into a real buzz kill.

Voters proved to be way more enthusiastic at the idea of medical marijuana than their representatives, who struggled and ultimately failed to agree on what turned out to be a complicated bill in the just-ended legislative session.

There’s a lot of money in state-sanctioned pot. And who gets to make it, and who doesn’t, became a sticking point that may take a special session of the Florida Legislature to unravel.

The state’s Department of Health used a scorecard to sort through the applications from 26 nurseries that sought to be among the few selected as state-sanction pot growers.

Dividing Florida into three regions, the state picked seven nurseries to “cultivate, process, transport, and dispense” the marijuana. The losers sued, as did the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, who claimed the ground rules of eligibility – 30 continuous years of as a state-registered nursery – discriminated against them.

Some pro-marijuana lobbyists wanted to break this “cartel” of growers that the state created, while others were mostly concentrated on making sure that lawmakers didn’t sabotage the successful ballot amendment by constricting the number of storefront dispensaries that would be allowed to sell the marijuana to caregivers and patients.

A good bit of the anti-medical-marijuana campaign had been warning that legalization would lead to dispensaries in every strip shopping center. So even though 71.3 percent of voters said they wanted medical marijuana to be available, it was up to state lawmakers to determine just how available that would be.

And the Florida House and Senate came up with very different ideas on that subject. Initially, the House didn’t restrict the number of dispensaries in the state, while the Senate thought that growers should be allowed to open up to five dispensaries each.

The House eventually came down to 100 storefront dispensaries of each grower. But the Senate thought that was still way too high.

There was also consideration of what would happen as the number of marijuana patients grew in the state. That’s what happened in other states.

The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimated that the Florida population of medical marijuana users would quickly reach 450,000 people. And so there was a provision in this bill to increase the number of sanctioned growers as the number of patients increased.

The House bill required the state to grant licenses to five more growers when the state’s patient registry reached 100,000 active patients, with three additional licenses for every 100,000 patients added.

And to add all these extra growers, the requirement for these nurseries to be in business for 30 years would be reduced to just five years.

The Senate came up with different numbers. About the only thing both houses agreed on was that they didn’t want the medical marijuana to be smoked – the House bill didn’t want edibles or vaping either.

In the end though, the fatal sticking point was over an acceptable number of storefront dispensaries. Both houses couldn’t agree on a number as time for the session ran out. Meanwhile, the pro-marijuana forces were openly fighting in public.

John Morgan, the personal-injury lawyer who financed the successful marijuana ballot amendment, was pushing hard for an unlimited number of storefront dispensaries, while Ben Pollara, the executive officer of Florida For Care, was pushing for limiting the number of dispensaries each grower could have as a way to force the legislature to sanction more growers and break the so-called cartel.

Morgan accused Pollara of being a traitor, in a tweet to his followers.

“My (hashtag)ArmyOfAngels will be shocked to learn of the person responsible for this deadlock!” Morgan wrote.

Then he inserted the hashtag “FredoWillBeFishingSoon” – which refers to a scene in the movie “The Godfather: Part II,” when Michael Corleone avenges a betrayal by his brother Fredo by having him shot while Fredo fishes in a boat on Lake Tahoe.

Absent a special legislative session, the job of working out the details of how medical marijuana will be dispensed in Florida will be left up to the state Department of Health, which has until July 3 to come up with the final numbers.

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.

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