Last week, hundreds of hopeful patients, caregivers and business interests filled meeting rooms across the state to tell health officials how they want Florida’s medical marijuana program to go into effect after 71 percent of voters approved it.
In Tallahassee, the picture is a little different. Instead of patients, lobbyists pack committee hearings.
Lobbyists, paid to represent various interests, are normally the ones watching as state lawmakers cast votes, but their interest in pot is so great that the first House subcommittee meeting on the subject was standing-room only. Sergeant-at-arms staffers blocked the door, turning people away.
At the final stop in the Department of Health's statewide tour of public hearings, Chelsie Lyons, a Tallahassee-based activist with Minorities for Medical Marijuana called out the process that will turn Amendment 2 into a state laws and rules governing medical cannabis.
"The elephant in the room is that this is about business," she said. "It's about palliative care and treating people, but in the back of everyone's mind, there's dollars and coins and cents rolling around."
More than 150 lobbyists are registered to represent more than 100 different interest groups, according to lobbying disclosure data published for the first time this year by the Florida House. (However, lobbyists tell the Times/Herald those numbers are high because some people accidentally registered all of their clients as interested in cannabis and were unable to change their entry in the House’s system.)
Still, that means the loudest voices in setting cannabis policy are likely to be those of lobbyists and the groups they represent.
Chief among them, six of the seven nurseries that currently hold licenses to grow and sell cannabis in Florida have lined up significant lobbying muscle. The dollar figures of these contracts are not yet available but expect big money to be spent lobbying the implementation of Amendment 2.
Trulieve/Hackney Nurseries in Gadsden County: 12 lobbyists from five firms (Ballard Partners; Capital City Consulting; Colodny Fass; Broad and Cassel; and Pittman Law Group)
The Green Solution/San Felasco Nurseries in Alachua County: Nine lobbyists from five firms (Smith, Bryan & Myers; Unconventional Strategies; Macy Island Consulting; Lindstrom Consulting; and Igniting Florida)
Surterra Therapeutics/Alpha Foliage in Hillsborough County: Seven lobbyists from two firms (Ron Book, Corcoran & Johnston and the Rubin Group).
Modern Health Concepts/Costa Farms in Miami-Dade County: Six lobbyists from three firms (Southern Strategies; Impact GR; and Broad and Cassel).
Knox Medical in Orange County: Two lobbyists from one firm (Floridian Partners).
CHT Medical/Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua County: One lobbyist from one firm (SKD Consulting).
This list does not include the many other interests at play: Patient groups, organizations for doctors and other medical professionals, cities and counties that want zoning and regulatory power under the new laws, and plenty of growers, dispensaries and testing facilities that lost out in the existing system.
Advocacy groups pushing for a more open medical marijuana market are lining up hired guns, as well.
Florida for Care, the group that pushed the constitutional amendment, has hired Brecht Heuchan and the Mayernick Group, as well as having two registered lobbyists on its own staff.
And lobbyists Jeff Sharkey and Taylor Patrick Biehl from Capitol Alliance Group started a Medical Marijuana Business Association in 2014 to be a source of information to the policy process. Capitol Alliance Group also represents several interests, including some who want to become licensed growers and even a cannabis-focused bank.
This post has been updated.
Photo: A House committee room is standing-room-only as lobbyists pack in for a public hearing on medical cannabis. The room was so packed, staff in the sergeant-at-arms' office had to block entrance to latecomers. (Michael Auslen, Times/Herald)