FL: Lawmakers Prepare Different Approaches To Cannabis Implementation


Tallahassee – After an overwhelming majority of Floridians approved an expansion of medical marijuana in the state, lawmakers are preparing to hash out the regulatory set-up for the growing industry.

And that’s when things may get interesting, again.

Some lawmakers still are cautious about the expansion. Others say voters indicated they want much more access for patients. There are questions about how many people, and illnesses, should be eligible, how the rules will be implemented, and who will enforce them. And there’s the potential for conflict between supporters of an expanded marketplace and the six companies that already are dispensing the drug.

So while the voters have spoken, the debate really is only just beginning.

Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is planning to fill a bill that would likely afford the greatest expansion of medical cannabis availability.

Its a bill that he said rhymes with one he filed last year.

That effort failed. But this time, he said he has an army of voters backing him up.

This is as close to a mandate as the Legislature can get on this, he said in an interview with POLITICO Florida.

He added that he wants medical marijuana implementation that looks, acts and feels medical.

While he wants to allow for products that patients can smoke and eat, he said he doesnt want to allow cannabis products to be packaged like candy or in any way attractive to children.

We went to great lengths to define the packaging and the types of products that can be sold, he said. Hes planning to file the bill by Christmas.

But he may find Senate leadership taking a more conservative approach.

The Senate budget chair, Republican Jack Latvala, opposed Amendment 2, arguing it didnt belong in the state constitution.

"I just see too many opportunities for abuse," he said in September.

Senate President Joe Negron this month laid out his philosophy for how to deal with implementation: "We should take the text of the amendment, and we should follow it exactly verbatim what voters approved. The voters, in my opinion, clearly intended to expand the number of medical conditions for which medical cannabis could be part of the treatment. So we should implement the letter and the spirit of that.

But, he added, implementation should take into account the current system because businesses and others have made decisions based on those rules.

That echoes the sentiment of Sen. Rob Bradley, who played a major role in creating the current regulatory system.

That system allows for the use of low-THC marijuana for a narrow set of conditions, and also allows terminal patients to use full-strength marijuana.

The existence of that regulatory structure, administered by Department of Health’s Office of Compassionate Use, will help pave the way for future implementation, Bradley said in an interview with POLITICO Florida.

I think Florida is ready to smoothly implement Amendment 2, and Im glad that we got a head start, he said.

The industry is still in its infancy in Florida, Bradley said, and he expects this is going to be a process that unfolds over the course of many, many years.

State economists estimated the number of medical marijuana users in Florida at full implementation at around 450,000, though that number could vary depending on what the list of qualifying conditions looks like. They also estimate potential sales tax revenue for state and local governments at $67 million, though estimates vary widely. Thats on projected sales of $1.4 billion.

Over in the House, Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he wants to put forth a bill that protects the state while at the same time honoring the constitution. However, his office didnt answer questions about what policy preferences the speaker has when it comes to regulating medical marijuana.

Corcoran has said he plans to take more of a hands-off approach as speaker when it comes to guiding policymaking and let members debate the issues in committees.

The chair of the House Health and Human Services Subcommittee said some of the key questions are yet to be determined, but points to the current program as at least a starting point.

I think theres been a lot of time and effort put into the existing framework, said Rep. Travis Cummings. I dont think we need to blow that up.

He said what concerns him is whether that framework can be modified to make sure the industry can absorb the increased demand.

Cummings said its a matter of taking the existing set-up that weve passed and squaring that with what that means with this significantly broader amendment that needs to be dealt with.

Cummings expects that any implementation bill in the House will likely start in the Health Quality Subcommittee and make its last stop in his committee before going to the floor.

Meanwhile, the amendment sets up a potential lobbying struggle between supporters of the amendment, along with interested investors, who want to see the market expanded and the six incumbent dispensing companies that will likely jockey to limit changes to the regulatory structure.

Ben Pollara, a lobbyist for the group that championed the amendment, said he hopes to see an implementing bill that expands the types of qualifying patients and also expands their ability to access medical cannabis.

And he says that expanding access necessarily means expanding the market.

The market and the access are inextricably linked, he said. The scope of the current system under which companies applied for licenses and the scope of system envisioned in the amendment are a whole different deal, so just rolling one system into another doesnt make a lot of sense to Pollara.

Still, he said hes not interested in turning this into a political fight, and doesnt want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Were going in there with aggressively reasonable positions, he said. We want to see this get done and get it to the people who need it.

Michael Bronstein of the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp favors an approach that expands the currently limited market, and says thats what Floridians were voting for on Election Day.

The election campaign was fought on the grounds of being able to expand patient access, which is directly linked to opening up a more substantial market place, he said.

The current system has six companies licensed to cultivate, process and sell medical marijuana. That number could grow to nine when the registry of patients hits 250,000.

Theres not a fully operational market, Bronstein said, noting that patients have only started getting access to the medicine in the past few months despite lawmakers first approving the program in 2014. Were talking about a very limited marketplace, and one that needs to be expanded.

The prospect of expanding the market in Florida is of particular significance because of the state’s large population.

Bronstein said people in the industry were buoyed by the election outcome, believing that result could put an end to delays in the state.

Brandes said his bill, which he plans to file by Christmas, creates a whole new regulatory scheme, which is what I think Amendment 2 now calls for, and incorporates the experiences of the states that already have medical marijuana on the books. The set-up wouldnt change the current regulatory scheme, but would grandfather in the current providers.

Brandes said he also wants to make sure communities still have control over where dispensaries are located, though not where deliveries of the medicine can be made.

The expansion camp may find resistance from lobbyists for the companies that currently hold licenses.

Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Trulieve, argues for a more conservative, cautious approach that preserves the culture of Florida.

For one, he argues that flooding the market with product from too many competitors could make it unsustainable for anybody to be in the market and therefore deny the very people who need it.

Regulatory requirements like vertical integration are important to prevent product from making its way to the black market and for holding companies accountable.

And that sentiment is shared by Bradley, who sees the vertical integration requirement as advantageous because regulators can yank out the entire bad plant by the root, and effectively get rid of the bad actors.

But Brandes said that the regulatory set-up he envisions would still have rigorous controls, including seed to sale tracking, to protect patients and prevent product from slipping into the black market.

Beyond the fight over who gets to grow and sell, and how, is the question of who gets to use the plant.

The amendment lays out a list of debilitating conditions that qualify patients for use, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Crohns disease, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma, but also allows doctors to certify patients for medical marijuana use for "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated."

And lawmakers could have a hand in figuring out which conditions make the cut, a question that could spark heated debate.

Bradley said expects a fight over whether to include idiopathic pain (chronic pain with no known cause) on the list. Its a condition that could substantially boost the number of qualifying patients, but also draws concern from Bradley.

If youre talking about generalized chronic pain with no particular cause to it I think that is where the rubber hits the road in the debate on this issue, he said. That is the loophole that individuals drive a truck through.

But questions about who should have access, Bronstein said, are best left for physicians.

"A lot of times the conditions list is decided by whats politically possible and not whats best for the patients, he said. "If you have a medicine at your disposal, why would you take it out of the doctors hands for use at their discretion?

Regardless of what path lawmakers take, the amendment puts the onus for sorting out the nitty-gritty on the Department of Health. The departments Office of Compassionate Use currently handles medical marijuana regulation.

The department will follow the will of the voters, a spokeswoman for the department said in an email. However, she would not answer a question about what exactly the department plans to do to achieve that goal.

If lawmakers fail to act, then it will fall to the department to make the big decisions.

Thats a fate that stakeholders on all sides say they dont want to see because they fear the rules will be promptly challenged, and then the courts will be forced to sort it out – a less-predictable outcome.

Even as more than half of all states have legalized medical marijuana, and eight states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, the plant is still illegal under federal law to possess, let alone cultivate or sell.

The Obama administration has signaled in past years that it would take a hands-off approach to state-sanctioned marijuana industries, but the legal status has still complicated basic business functions for many companies, like opening bank accounts and paying taxes.

Bradley said he hopes President-elect Donald Trump "uses his bully pulpit to make sure thats addressed at the federal level, noting that Trump has expressed support in the past for medical marijuana.

"I think medical [marijuana] should happen – right? Dont we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states, Trump said last year in Nevada, according to a Washington Post article. Although hes said the question of marijuana "should be a state issue, state-by-state, he has also spoken against recreational legalization.

Despite the rhetoric, Trumps pick to head the U.S. Department of Justice, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has alarmed medical marijuana advocates who fear he will extinguish their hopes for providing access to the plant for patients.

Trumps transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Lawmakers Prepare Different Approaches To Cannabis Implementation
Author: Daniel Ducassi
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Photo Credit: Lynne Sladky
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