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Medical marijuana debate highlights moneyed special interests


Debate in the Capitol over expanding medical marijuana has turned to a touchy subject: Money.

Senators on Monday considered a proposal to expand the state’s existing marijuana laws — which allow some patients, including children who suffer from intense seizures, to use pot low in high-inducing THC — to let licensed growers sell full-strength marijuana to terminal patients.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the sponsor of the legislation (SB 460), says the proposal would also speed up the process to get the low-THC variety to sick kids, who have waited two years since the Legislature authorized it.

But that argument angered Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said the Legislature already voted in 2014 to help those kids. He called Bradley’s bill an attempt to expand the potentially lucrative medical marijuana market to the existing five growers who have been approved by the Department of Health.

“I think the most repugnant thing is that we’re using the guise of helping these kids for a special interest food fight to expand the people that can offer this, that can make money on it,” Latvala said, adding that “This is about making money as much or more as it is about helping sick people. That’s my moral imperative to vote ‘no.’”

He was the only member of the Senate Rules Committee to vote no after Democrats added a provision clarifying that black farmers can apply for licenses if they are expanded in the future. The measure now heads to the full Senate.

But the medical marijuana legislation has been tied up in special interests’ pocketbooks throughout session, even if it hasn’t been at the forefront of the debate.

Costa Farms, one of the five growers licensed by DOH pumped $270,000 into political committees controlled by lawmakers and state parties in December and January, up until the Jan. 12 start date of session, when all fundraising has to end.

Their biggest checks — $25,000 — went to committees run by Bradley and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the House and Senate sponsors of medical marijuana legislation; Gov. Rick Scott; House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island; and Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who sits on the Senate Rules Committee. The Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is controlled by President Designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also received $25,000.

Costa cut $10,000 checks to three key committee chairmen in the House and Senate, as well as the Florida Democratic Party.

Bradley said he “could care less who makes money” on medical marijuana.

“Any political contributions I have received have played zero role on any decisions I have made on this or any legislation,” he said.

Special interests, Bradley said, have slowed the process of getting low-THC marijuana to the people who need it. His bill would speed that process up by allowing additional licenses to be granted to some groups that meet the qualifications to be a grower but weren’t initially selected by DOH.

“The reason why we haven’t delivered on the promise to those families and it’s two years later is because of money,” Bradley said. “People are fighting over getting these licenses, and with every day that goes on while people are in court, that’s another day that goes by that people aren’t getting the relief that’s promised to them.”

From here, the medical marijuana legislation will go to the House floor Wednesday and the Senate floor whenever the chamber’s leaders decide to schedule a vote. It’s likely to attract a large number of amendments.