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House bill to repeal medical marijuana smoking ban advances

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GLEN STUBBE AP

As Sen. Jeff Brandes put it Wednesday, "The end is in sight, we’re not far.”

Both the House and Senate bills to repeal a ban on smokeable medical marijuana are hitting some of their final stops this week, bringing them one step closer to the chamber floors.

The House bill, brought by Rep. Ray Rodrigues and the Health and Human Services Committee, passed favorably in appropriations Thursday, including a strike-through that got rid of requirements for filters on medical marijuana cigarettes. The amendment also appropriates $1.5 million in recurring general revenue to fund a consortium to research the effects of medical marijuana.

Only Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican, voted no. 

“Bronchitis, lung issues, all these other things that are a big concern to me,” he said about the bill last week. 

The two bills have grown more similar through each committee stop, which Brandes said has helped the process. A key difference is that Senate version doesn't limit smoking to pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes and instead allows for a 35-day of whole-flower supply.

The House bill recommends the Board of Governors designate which state university will hold the consortium, a change from the bill's former language specifying the University of Florida. It also sets aside about $705,000 for three positions at the Office of Medical Marijuana Use and about $215,000 for technology upgrades to the medical marijuana registry.

Lawmakers in both chambers agree that more needs to be done to make access more affordable and accessible to patients across the state. But they say they plan to address that kind of legislation in the future, and are more focused now on getting smoking ban repeal bills to the Governor's desk by the deadline.

"I've been given assurance that future legislation that will be considered by this body will address cost and affordability concerns," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who voted yes on the bill. "Although this isn't perfect, it's hard for me to vote against it."

Rep Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said he thinks Rodrigues' bill will help patients, but that issues like vertical integration will need to be taken up in a future bill. Vertical integration is the part of the medical marijuana law that requires license holders to grow, process and sell their own product, as opposed to offering contracts to other vendors. 

"There are some things we need to do that aren't addressed in this bill, and don't need to be," he said. "Something needs to be done to break the logjam that is keeping the medicine from the people who need it."

Gov. Ron DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators don’t by the deadline, the governor said he will do so with litigation.

In 2016, about 71 percent of voting Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. While the 2017 bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, it made smoking it illegal. In addition to the ban on smoking, the law also capped the number of medical marijuana licenses and the number of dispensaries in the state.

The provision, which became known as the “smoking ban,” was challenged in circuit court in July 2017. In its complaint, People United for Medical Marijuana, Inc., argued the smoking ban altered the definition of “marijuana” and by banning smoking in public, implicitly authorized smoking marijuana in a private place.

In May 2018, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers declared the smoking ban unconstitutional, but the Department of Health appealed the ruling later that month.

After DeSantis announced his intent to drop the appeal should the Legislature not act to remove the smoking ban, both parties filed a motion to stay the appeal until March 2019.

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