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Medical marijuana expansion heads to Gov. Rick Scott

An expansion to medical marijuana in Florida is headed to Gov. Rick Scott after the state Senate approved the measure today.

Under the bill, which passed on a bipartisan 28-11 vote, terminally ill patients could be prescribed medical marijuana. It could also lead to more growers if nurseries turned down for a license by the Department of Health are successful in ongoing court challenges.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsored the bill in the Senate, which grew from a two-page expansion of the state's Right to Try law to a 29-page proposal that includes regulations and provisions for additional licenses.

In 2014, the Legislature passed a law allowing medical marijuana low in euphoric THC to be prescribed for patients who suffer from cancer or severe seizures. No patients have yet received the drug, and several of the nurseries that DOH did not grant one of the five available regional licenses by DOH filed challenges in court.

"People are waiting," Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said. "There are people who need treatment. I'm not saying this bill is perfect ... but this is the best we have."

But some senators argued that Bradley's bill won't fix the problems that led to the two-year wait.

"The system is designed for profit, not to help patients," Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

The main issue raised by opponents: Which companies are licensed to grow and sell marijuana, especially as it appears voters could open up medical marijuana even further in November.

In this year's bill, lawmakers wrote in provisions to ensure that the original five growers approved by the Department of Health for growing low-THC cannabis are protected and have the first crack at full-fledged medical marijuana in the state.

That's caused controversy, as senators have called the structure a "monopoly" and said it helps entrenched special interests.

"Does this set up a state-sanctioned drug cartel, which is what it is?" Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg asked. "Yes, it does. You're basically mandating that five families get wealthy."

Nevertheless, some advocates who have pushed for additional licenses have declared a victory. A group of black farmers that had not been eligible to become growers under strict rules in the 2014 marijuana legalization would now be among the first to gain additional licenses if there are ever 250,000 patients.

Several senators argued that's an unreachable threshold. Others voiced concern that the five growers approved by DOH have not shown they are capable of growing full-strength marijuana or handling distribution and retail sales.

Senators have voted down attempts to include additional conditions and allow for more licenses to be granted, or at the very least for lower thresholds for expanded licenses.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said lawmakers can come back and make tweaks. Clemens said he's planning to try to rewrite the structure again next year.

"We need to pass this, make changes next year and the next if we need to and get it going," Montford said.

The bill passed the House last week and now heads to Scott's desk for signature or veto.