The powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee suggested Wednesday he, too, would consider targeting funding at the Department of Health to force them to take more action on implementing medical marijuana regulations, after officials there failed to respond for months to letters from a committee expressing concerns with the agency's rules.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the agency's top marijuana official, Christian Bax, had also showed "an element of disrespect" Monday when Bax sat in silence during a meeting of that committee as legislators discussed their concerns in front of him. They then voted unanimously objecting to multiple rules the office issued last year.
Bradley told reporters that legislators were considering ways to prompt swifter action from the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, which has been slow to roll out the regulations needed to implement the constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana. Bax's silence during the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee meeting was particularly frustrating, he said.
"We certainly are considering all options to responding accordingly to what I think is not a proper acknowledgement of the separation of powers and the role each branch plays in our system," Bradley said, though he did not elaborate on how that power might be exercised. "We have the power of the purse, utilizing that to make sure they do their job."
The House already flexed some of its spending muscle last week to force Bax's office to respond, when Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, pushed an amendment in the House's budget last week that froze $2.1 million in salary and funds at the Department of Health. Bradley said at the time that he supported the measure, though it was not mirrored in the Senate.
In a statement, department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said the agency is "proud of the progress we have made," citing improvements including processing time and six more licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers. "This issue continues to be frequently litigated by special interests, but our focus will remain with Florida patients."
Bax had infuriated legislators at the committee meeting Monday when, despite a public lashing, he remained silent as the committee discussed its objections to some of the department's emergency rules. The objections, which addressed issues including a ban on amending applications for medical marijuana licenses and ID cards for caregivers, were outlined in 15 letters from the committee dating back to October, said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, a committee chair.
Bax's office had ignored them, in a first for the committee, he said. When a letter from the Department of Health's general counsel Friday said the committee's objections might cause more delays with the next application cycle and some regulations, Rader called that reasoning insulting.
Rader also suggested that legislators might consider targeting the office's funding, though his committee itself has little punitive power.
The office has attributed delays to administrative issues, legal challenges and fallout from Hurricane Irma. Among the legal issues it had blamed was a lawsuit — since blocked by a judge — contesting a provision requiring a black farmer receive one of the 1o new marijuana licenses created under the law.
Bax told reporters after the Monday meeting that the office had 30 days to respond and that it was "appropriate to give these objections the time and consideration that they're due."
This story has been updated.
Photo: Tampa Bay Times