November 10, 2015

Medical marijuana initiative’s October haul: 337K

@MichaelAuslen

Cash continues to flow to the group trying to legalize medical marijuana in next November’s election.

In October, United for Care, the group sponsoring ballot language for medical pot, raised $337,293, according to financial reports made available Tuesday.

That brings the annual tally up to more than $2.2 million raised by the committee since November 2014, when their last proposal to legalize medical marijuana failed to gain the 60 percent required to amend Florida’s constitution.

As in past months, much of the October money has come from big-ticket donors, notably Orlando lawyer John Morgan.

This month alone, Morgan contributed $237,979. And he’s promising to donate $9 for every dollar contributed through the end of the year.

Other big checks: $40,000 from Coral Cables resident Barbara Stiefel, who has been a major donor to United for Care since 2013; $10,000 from Richard Shevelow, who reports being an engineer; and $5,000 from Sarasota pharmaceutical company AltMed, whose tagline is “The science of medical cannabis.”

Still, the October campaign finance report isn’t all good news: United for Care hasn’t been able to generate the kind of funding it did earlier this year. July’s haul was $770,534. August’s was $437,220.

There’s a big push coming from the committee to raise money this fall. Supporters hope to qualify for next November’s ballot by the end of the year, campaign manager Ben Pollara said. Already, the group has 348,603 signatures on file with the Secretary of State’s office.

The Florida Supreme Court will soon decide whether the ballot language is acceptable. Unlike last time around, Attorney General Pam Bondi isn’t opposing them.

United for Care is on track to make their end-of-year goal, Pollara said. But making the ballot will require another 334,546 petition signatures to be certified by local supervisors of elections, including in 12 of the state’s congressional districts.

And that’s where the money comes in.

The key to getting enough signatures is paying petition gatherers — the folks outside grocery stores and on street corners asking passersby to support medical marijuana.

“To get on the ballot, you have to pay these petition gatherers on a weekly basis,” Polara said. “If you don’t, they stop collecting petitions.”

October 21, 2015

Florida Supreme Court to review medical pot Dec. 9

@MichaelAuslen

On Dec. 9, supporters and opponents of medical marijuana will take the stand in Tallahassee to argue why a constitutional amendment to legalize the drug should or should not be on the ballot next November.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear the arguments over the issue, as it does all constitutional amendments, and justices will decide if voters should be allowed to legalize the drug in the state. In the 2014 election, the court okayed the proposed amendment, although it fell short of the 60 percent vote threshold required to be written into the constitution.

The amendment is being pushed by United for Care, a group that has raised more than $1.8 million, much of it from lawyer John Morgan. Among its opponents in 2014 was Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In an order Wednesday, the court wrote that each side would have 20 minutes to make its case as to the constitutionality of the amendment. The court cannot decide whether or not medical marijuana is good policy. Briefs have to be filed with the court by Oct. 30.

Bondi sent the constitutional amendment to the court -- as she is required to do -- after it recieved a tenth of the petition signatures needed to qualify for next November's ballot. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had 286,274 verified signatures of the 683,149 required.

October 07, 2015

Gaetz and Bradley file measure to dramatically expand market medical pot

Promising to give another option to sick patients in Florida, the authors of the state's existing medical marijuana bill filed legislation Wednesday to allow high potency strains of cannabis to be cultivated and sold for non-smoking purposes for a potentially vast new audience -- those diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Under the bill filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, two physicians would determine that a patient is at the end of life and the patient would then be eligible for marijuana with unlimited levels of THC, expanding the existing law that legalizes only non-euphoric strains of marijuana. 

"We're offering this because people who want to die without being jacked up with opiates or who are in excruciating pain are visiting their legislators, their making phone calls, their sending emails and it's working,'' Gaetz said. 

The law would expand the "Right to Try" legislation passed last year which allows terminally ill patients to access experimental and potentially life-saving—treatments more easily. 

"It's appropriate to have more flexibility for those families where they can try experimental drugs they should also be able to try high potency marijuana,'' Bradley said. 

"This is a game changer,'' said Taylor Biehl, legislative director of the Capital Alliance Group, which represents a consortium of cannabis growers who have applied to cultivate and distribute medical pot in Florida. "This is a foot hold for drastically increasing the patient base across the line."

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October 06, 2015

State regulators: We are 'unable to say' when medical pot will be available in Florida

Marijuana samplesState regulators said Tuesday they could not say when a limited strain of marijuana will be available in Florida for medical purposes, even though it is nearly a year past the deadline on which the drug was promised. 

“At this time we are unable to provide a date the licenses will be available,’’ said Nichole Geary, general counsel for the Florida Department of Health which is in charge of licensing the five dispensaries that will cultivate and distribute the low-THC strain of medical cannabis approved by lawmakers in 2014. 

That answer drew sharp criticism from Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, who along with other lawmakers supported the legalization of marijuana low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, to help patients with cancer and seizures, such as severe epilepsy.

 “I’m sure you’re aware of the frustration that members of the legislature have had in this process,’’ Steube said at a meeting of the House's Health Quality Subcommittee. “This is something we voted on two years ago.”

He noted that the agency received the applications from 28 growers on July 8 and was required to have a three-person panel review the applications and select companies that will produce and dispense the marijuana within 90 days.

“It’s been three months since then and you’re still telling us today that you have no idea when there will be some timeline,’’ he said. “I just don’t understand how we don’t have some type of way ahead.” 

Geary responded that the applications are lengthy and the agency is trying to be careful.

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September 22, 2015

Medical pot backers claim to have 500,000 signatures

United for Care -- the group behind a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida -- has reached half a million petition signatures, chairman and primary funder John Morgan announced in an email Tuesday.

However, most of those signatures have not been validated by local supervisors of elections.

According to the Secretary of State's office, 154,755 signatures have been verified by the supervisors. It takes 683,149, including 8 percent from each of 14 congressional districts. Morgan said he believes the group is halfway to that number.

United for Care's amendment already qualified for review by the Supreme Court, the first step toward getting on the ballot. Through August, the campaign had raised $1.58 million, much of it from Morgan.

August 31, 2015

Marijuana amendment qualifies for court review

A constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in Florida has reached a key milestone in its petition drive, triggering required reviews by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Supreme Court.

The proposal has gotten 73,713 signatures, according to Florida Division of Elections data. Bondi has 30 days to review the ballot language and send it to the Supreme Court, which will determine if it's constitutional.

The amendment would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes and allow the state Department of Health to regulate marijuana growth and sale. In the 2014 election, it fell just short of the 60 percent required to amend the state constitution.

But backed by lawyer John Morgan, the amendment has already raked in over $1 million in contributions for the upcoming election cycle.

"This is the first major milestone to bringing medical marijuana back before the voters of Florida In November 2016," campaign manager Ben Pollara said. "In the next election, Floridians will succeed where their elected leaders have failed them, and pass a comprehensive, compassionate medical marijuana law to serve the hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering people who are so desperate for relief in our state."

Bondi is required to pass it on to the Supreme Court, but she can contest the language. In late 2013, she said in a letter to the court that, "Florida law would allow marijuana in limitless situations."

It takes 683,149 petition signatures to make it onto the ballot next November, and state law requires that those include a large portion of voters in 14 congressional districts. So far, most of the petition signatures are in districts 4 (Jacksonville), 11 (including Hernando County), 13 (Pinellas) and 14 (Pinellas and Hillsborough).

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this post.

July 22, 2015

100,000 back medical pot initiative

Medical marijuana is one step closer to its return to the ballot in 2016.

United for Care, the group fighting to legalize medical pot through a voter-approved constitutional amendment next fall, announced Wednesday that it's sending petitions to county election supervisors on behalf of 100,000 Floridians who want to see the issue on the ballot.

Election supervisors must now verify that the signatures are legitimate, and if there are at least 68,317 statewide, the measure will go before the Florida Supreme Court.Campaign Manager Ben Pollara said the ballot item could be ready for Supreme Court review by mid-August.

“This is a massive head start over the previous campaign - which started late. If we can sustain this pace, we should ensure our place on the ballot before the holidays,” Pollara said.

United for Care, which is heavily backed by lawyer John Morgan, made a similar push to legalize medical marijuana on the 2014 ballot. The issue garnered a majority of the vote but fell short of the 60 percent required to pass a constitutional amendment.

The group is off to a fast start this year, raising $373,855.18 since the November 2014 election. Last month, there were $292,962.95 in contributions, nearly all of which came from Morgan.

Florida medical marijuana campaign submits 100K ballot petitions for review

@PatriciaMazzei

United for Care, the campaign to once again get medical marijuana on the Florida ballot, said Wednesday it has submitted 100,000 petitions to county elections supervisors for review.

The supervisors now have 30 days to validate the signatures and send them to Tallahassee. The Florida Supreme Court would then have to schedule a review of the proposed constitutional amended to legalize medical pot.

"This is a massive head start over the previous campaign -- which started late," campaign manager Ben Pollara said in a statement. "If we can sustain this pace, we should ensure our place on the ballot before the holidays."

A total of 68,317 valid petitions are required to obtain Supreme Court review for the amendment language (about a quarter to a third usually get rejected for various reasons, which is why campaigns collect more than petitions). Even more petitions -- 683,179 -- would be required to actually get the OK'ed language on the 2016 ballot.

Pollara said United for Care expects to get a Supreme Court review date around mid-August. He said the campaign has about 13,000 volunteers working to collect signatures, no doubt propelled by how well the amendment did in 2014. It garnered nearly 58 percent support, which was slightly short of the 60-percent threshold required for constitutional amendments.

The campaign expects to do even better in a presidential year, with a more left-leaning electorate.

July 21, 2015

Legal pot director Patricia Nelson to leave health department

The woman at the helm of the state office that's legalizing some strains of medical cannabis is leaving the Department of Health to work for Gov. Rick Scott.

Pattricia Nelson will no longer be the director of the Office of Compassionate Use, Department of Health spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie confirmed. She'll be working for Scott's Office of Policy and Budget.

The shakeup comes in the middle of a critical time for the Office of Compassionate Use, which was tasked by lawmakers with the regulation of marijuana strains that are low in high-causing THC but helpful to patients battling cancer and epilepsy. Earlier this month, nurseries interested in growing and producing the drug applied for one of five licenses to do so. Nelson was one of three panelists reviewing and approving applications.

State health officials are actively looking for a replacement, said Cowie.

"As we transition, the department remains committed to getting this product to children with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer as safely and quickly as possible," she wrote in a statement. "No delays are anticipated as a result of this transition."

Prior to heading up the Office of Compassionate Use, Nelson worked in the governor's office during Scott's first term as deputy director for the Office of Accountability and Regulatory Reform, according to her LinkedIn.

May 27, 2015

Judge dismisses final marijuana challenge; access expected by 'end of year' state says

Florida regulators said they expect to provide access to a limited strain of non-euphoric marijuana for medical purposes by the end of the year after a Tallahassee judge on Wednesday dismissed the final challenge to the long-awaited rule.

The Florida Department of Health, which developed the rule, is expected to start accepting applications within three weeks from eligible growers for the strain of marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. Growers could start selling to eligible patients who are put on a state-run "compassionate use registry" within months.

"I am one happy legislator,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, one of the sponsors of the 2014 legislation that attempted to expedite the development and cultivation of the so-called "Charlotte's Web" strain of low-THC marijuana to help people suffering from epileptic seizures, cancer and other ailments.

Legislators had intended for the medical strain of cannabis to be available to Floridians by January of this year but regulators had their first rule rejected, and then faced a series of legal challenges. On Wednesday, they offered patients new hope.

"Today's ruling allows the department to move forward with implementing the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, approved by the legislature in 2014,'' the Department of Health said in a statement. "The department remains committed to ensuring safe and efficient access to this product for children with refractory epilepsy and patients with advanced cancer. We are moving swiftly to facilitate access to the product before the end of the year.”

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