Up in smoke: Florida Legislature chokes on medical pot

With staggering ineptitude, the Florida Legislature managed to let down millions of Floridians — yet again — by failing to pass a bill to reasonably regulate medical marijuana.

After hammering out almost all the disagreements between them, the House and Senate failed on Friday to bridge their differences over the number of dispensaries the state should have as time ran out on the 2017 legislative session.

This leaves implementation of Amendment 2, passed by an overwhelming 71 percent of Florida voters last November, in the hands of state Department of Health. This is the same bureaucracy that took more than two years to make a low-THC version of medical marijuana, called Charlotte’s Web, available to the small, qualifying number of people with seizures after the Florida Legislature OK’d that very limited use in 2014.

Or as the News Service of Florida put it, they’re the same bunch “who have been harshly criticized by legislators, patients, vendors — and judges — for their handling of the state’s current medical marijuana regulations.”

“The Florida Legislature chose political gamesmanship over the will of 71 percent of voters,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of the group Florida for Care, who also served as campaign manager for the political committee that backed the amendment. “The will of the people was thwarted again today by Tallahassee politicians, but they can’t deny us forever. Florida for Care will continue fighting to implement the Constitution and bring a compassionate medical marijuana law to this state’s patients.”

The House and Senate had started the legislative session with quite different approaches toward regulating medical marijuana for the much wider number of patients for whom November’s vote’s vote is supposed to benefit.

The House took a much more restrictive approach, but in recent conferences with the Senate, the two chambers came much closer — except on the subject of dispensaries.

The Senate on Thursday modified its proposal to limit each marijuana operator a maximum of 10 retail locations. The number would have increased as the number of eligible patients registered in a statewide database grew.

But, while the House originally wanted fewer licensed marijuana operators in the state, the House’s bill would have allowed the purveyors to have an unlimited number of storefronts.

Critics maintained that an unlimited number of dispensaries would give an unfair advantage to the seven operators currently licensed by the state. (News Service of Florida)

In other words, the politicians squabbled about the potential for a few operators to claim monopolies on the prospective marijuana market, rather than act with the urgency that the amendment requires.

Under the language of the amendment, which went into effect Jan. 3, key regulations are supposed to be in place by early June. That includes the rules for issuing patient I.D. cards; establishing laws and standards for caregivers and growers/distributors/dispensaries (now known as “medical marijuana treatment centers” or MMTCs); and defining the amounts of the drug that can be allotted to patients.

And by early September, the Health Department “shall begin issuing qualifying patient and caregiver identification cards, and registering MMTCs.”

If the deadlines aren’t met, “any Florida citizen shall have standing to seek judicial relief” to force the department to meet its now-constitutional duty.

Is it too early to start drafting the lawsuits?

UPDATE 9;45 a.m.

In the wake of the defeat, the man who bankrolled the medical marijuana campaign, trial lawyer John Morgan, has turned on Pollara, the political consultant who shepherded the bill, blaming him for the legislation’s failure. Politico reports:

Morgan called Pollara a “sellout” for his involvement in lobbying over capping the number of medical marijuana retail distribution centers in Florida. The issue of caps ultimately led to the death of the bill.

“It had nothing to do with patients, but had to do with profits,” Morgan said, accusing Pollara’s Florida for Care group of representing potential medical marijuana distributors who wanted a foothold in the Sunshine State.

But Pollara said he pushed for the caps because he didn’t want the limited number of current medical-marijuana providers to monopolize the market and jack up prices for patients.

“This is painful for me. I love John. I looked up to him as a mentor, but he’s just wrong on this,” Pollara said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t kill this bill. I didn’t want it to die. I told our lobbying team to do whatever they could to get a deal cut. But ultimately we weren’t the ones with the ability to cut a deal.”

Morgan isn’t hearing it. He said his split with Pollara is final, a once-unthinkable schism that’s akin to Batman and Robin going separate ways.

But Politico writers Daniel Ducassi and Marc Caputo go on to put the matter in perspective:

In refusing to cut Pollara any slack, Morgan pays relatively short shrift to the idea that, in the waning days of the legislative session — which had to go into overtime because House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President John Negron disagreed on so much — any small dispute over a bill in the final days would be its death knell. Since the caps issue killed the bill, those who fought for them are to blame for the bill’s failure.

The fate of medical marijuana in the Florida Legislature was always iffy. The GOP-controlled Legislature, where rank-and-file conservatives don’t want to appear soft on drugs, only began approving medical marijuana laws when it looked as if voters would do it without legislative input.

UPDATE 1 p.m.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham is asking for the Legislature to convene a special session to enact the medical marijuana amendment.

The former congresswoman and daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham issued a press release, stating:

“I watched my husband battle cancer and the sickening effects of chemotherapy. So many patients with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases could use medical marijuana as a way to treat their pain,” Graham said. “Floridians spent years begging the legislature to take action before taking their case to the voters, but once again, the legislature is ignoring them. If the people of Florida give me the honor of serving as governor, their voices will be heard.”

Failure to enact Amendment Two to legalize medical marijuana, which passed with 71.32 percent approval in 2016, is just the latest example of the legislature ignoring Florida voters.

“Go back to the lottery, or even more recently, Forever Florida, and all you see is the legislature playing shell games with voters. Sadly, no one should be shocked they’ve turned a blind eye to Floridians facing chronic diseases,” Graham said.

For the third year in a row, the legislature is misappropriating funds for Florida Forever, a land and water conservation program supported by 74.96 percent of Florida voters in 2014.

“If my kids acted like the legislature when I told them to clean their rooms, they’d still be grounded,” Graham said. “As governor, I will force the legislature to fulfill their responsibilities, including calling them into special session if needed, to enact medical marijuana legalization.”