Gary J Stein

For decades, Florida has been known as a vacation destination for its wide variety of theme parks and beaches. So it might not be a great surprise that the government has been taking the voters on a wide rollercoaster ride and throwing sand into the eyes of the 71.3 % of the voters who wanted to see greater access to medical cannabis become a reality in Florida.

The path to legal Medical cannabis started in 2013, with the bill that made CBD, low-THC items available for children with seizure disorders and then expanded the following year when terminal patients were added to the list of eligible patients. It took the Department of Health’s (DOH) Office of Compassionate Use (OCU), created by SB1030, the “Charlotte’s Web bill”, 2 years to create the rules of implementation and get the ball rolling. That process included millions of dollars in law suits for botched application processes for the seed-to-sale entities mandated by the bill, which was something added at the last minute, thanks to pressure from various special interest forces. Those same forces created rules that formed barriers, including a requirement of being a nursery in business for 30 years, the ability to grow 400,000 plants and post a $5 million performance bond that shut out all but a few well-connected businesses, and one even got in that wasn’t qualified in the first place, spurring litigation. It completely blocked out all minority farmers and entrepreneurs.

 

While this bread and circus was being played out, another option to the legislative approach was being played out. John Morgan, the omnipresent and charismatic Florida lawyer, was spearheading a campaign to get a constitutional ballot initiative off the ground that would increase access. In 2014, it came within 2 percentage points of reaching the 60% required by Florida law to pass a constitutional amendment. Undaunted, Morgan’s team, which he built from the original People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFMM) into United for Care, retooled the ballot initiative and tried again. This time it passed by an amazing 71.32% of the voters in the 2016 election and set into motion the series of events that brought Florida to the wild ride they have been on ever since.

The amendment established a simple, achievable time line. In January, the law would become active and it would default to the Department of Health to develop and implement the rules. The amendment stated that, after passage of the law, the DOH had 6 months to create the rules and nine months to implement them; otherwise any Florida citizen had the right to sue the state for obstruction. It seems simple, right?

It seems that making the simple become highly complex is an art that Florida knows all too well. It requires a transparent system that has constant closed-room deals and open door policy politicians that do off-site agreements with special and prohibitionist interests, while crony nepotism put less than qualified people into regulatory positions.

The OCU leadership consists of 3 people appointed by the governor.  It includes an executive director named Christian Bax whose resume was padded by his sister who works in the governor’s office (when his resume was sent to the surgeon general, the subject line actually stated, “Alternative Resume”).

In mid-January, 2 months after the elections, the OCU announced that they would have a 5-city hearing tour to allow citizen input. Then they released their base rules package – a cut-and-pasted one-pager that was mostly the old Charlotte’s web rules with a few new ones from the ballot initiative. United for Care quickly pointed out that it was unconstitutional, since it clearly was not written in the spirit, nor did it execute the mandates of the constitutional amendment.

The 5-city tour saw hundreds of Floridians pouring their hearts out about their illnesses, trials and tribulations, their perils and passions. Even prohibitionists came to talk about “pot shops” and worries over hordes of unemployed Rasta-looking homeless people fowling Florida’s beaches if we had medicine that could treat cancer, ALS, Krohn’s disease, PTSD, and more.

They sat and listed, and appeared to take notes. After the hearings, they decided not to create any more rules.

They did, however set up the mechanism for people to start getting there medical cards, but Floridians were still in that gray area between the Charlotte’s web rules and the new Amendment 2 rules, which confused doctors and patients alike, and no one was sure what was and what was not legal.

But through the gray area, the ball was passed to the legislature to do what the DOH didn’t or couldn’t do.

Several senators had anticipated that the ball was heading their way and were working on bills. Senator Rob Bradley started early. He had originally worked on the Charlotte’s web bill and pushed for a system of more vertically integrated seed-to-sale dispensaries, maintaining the limited market where, in Florida, prices were 3-5 times higher than any other medical cannabis state. Senator Brandes, who had worked to expand the patient pool to the terminally ill, wrote a bill that promoted a free-market horizontal approach. Four other Senate bills popped up, each with its own unique intention. One to expand the market to minorities, one to offer more local control, one to add research at Moffit Cancer Center and one to add independent lab testing. With six bills to implement the amendment, they opted to present Sen. Bradley’s Bill alone, and allow amendments made from most of the others bills main features – with the exception of the Sen. Brandes horizontal, free market bill, possible due to lobbying pressure from the current seven dispensing organizations.

In the House, the Speaker decided to have the Republican Majority leader spearhead the House bill, and built it thru the Health Quality Subcommittee of the Health and Human Services Committee. The majority leader, Rep. Ray Rodrigues openly touted an open door policy and took his time working with the committee. However, when he introduced Mel Sembler, the man who started Drug Free America Foundation, the organization that opposed Amendment 2 to the tune of $5 million, suspicions arose. Those suspicions were affirmed when the highly restrictive bill, HB1397 was introduced.

No edibles, no smoking, no vaping unless you were a terminal patient, and a $10M drug abuse awareness campaign were just some of the bad news.

From one committee to the next, the House and senate bills changed. The Senate added a cap of only three brick and mortar dispensaries per licensee, and first degree misdemeanor for medicating in public, even if it was an emergency.  Employers could fire employees at will with no recourse for legal action to get the job back. The House bill added some of the better part of the Senate bill, like reciprocity for part-time residents coming from legal states, but still espoused prohibitionist rhetoric in discussion. There were still bad things in the bill, like the Board of Medicine would be tracking doctors to decide if they were prescribing too much for severe, non-malignant chronic pain.

The bills were discussed and argued. They were being debated down to the last days of the session. Bizarre tricks were being played.  “Strike-All” amendments, where the entire bill was substituted with a new bill with massive changes, would be submitted at 5:00 at night, an hour before the deadline. Then legislators would scramble to make amendments before the deadline of 6:00. At a few minutes before 6:00, a new Strike-All would be submitted, making all amendments unusable. That happened several times.

On the last day, the senate sent the house bill back with 2 “poison pills”. They demanded that medical cannabis be taxed, something the House was adamant against, and they imposed the dispensary cap, which they had discussed behind closed doors at 10. The House wanted no cap originally. They were willing to actually pay for the lost taxes -$2.4M/year if the Senate paid for a year, but the Senate claimed their budget didn’t have any extra funds, since they spent them on hometown projects. So the House acquiesced, and offered to cover both years.

But when the bill came back from the Senate to the House for a vote, the cap was set at 5, and not 10 as agreed in the back room deal. The House leadership was infuriated. They amended it to 50, then to 100 and sent it back, with 3 hours left of session.

The Senate responded by adjourning without a vote.

They came back for one more day to complete their budget, which was constitutionally mandated, but the Amendment 2 implementation bill died on the table, and the ball was bounced through the fog back to the DOH, which is where it sits at the time of this writing.

This is so typical of Florida politics ; the drama, the not-so-transparent transparency, the dark forces at work that have nothing to do with the will of the voters.

It’s like a Disney World ride with none of the fun and you’re left in a fog.

And the will of the voters is ignored.