TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Senate Health Policy Committee meeting on Wednesday was dominated by discussion of five competing Senate bills seeking to update Florida’s medical marijuana marketplace.
Although there are five Senate bills and one House bill addressing Amendment 2 implementation, it’s not a mainstream issue. Wednesday’s workshop served to inform committee members about controversial issues the legislation will need to address.
These include determining what patients will qualify to use medical marijuana, and deciding if businesses will need all-encompassing licenses versus separate licenses for growing, distributing and selling medical marijuana.
The discussion among the lawmakers was so extensive that none of the nearly 50 public speakers who filled out appearance request cards got a chance to speak.
State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a leading voice in the medical marijuana debate and one of the sponsors for the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, said his bill on Amendment 2 implementation, S.B.406, may need to take a less restrictive approach.
“There’s been a lot of voices; they certainly shared their thoughts,” Bradley said. “I do believe that [my bill] is too restrictive based on the feedback I’ve received … in terms of the number of licenses and the competition that would need to be created to have a true access throughout the state.”
Most of the sponsors for the competing medical marijuana bills were not present. Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, was the only sponsor there speaking on behalf of a bill besides Bradley’s. Committee Chair Dana Young, R- Tampa, Bradley’s co-sponsor, occasionally interjected on behalf of the other senators’ bills.
Bradley told the committee that he thought the outcome of bill negotiations should result in a product somewhere between his proposal and Braynon’s bill, S.B.1666.
Young said how to define “debilitating conditions” was one issue that needed to be addressed. A loose interpretation of Amendment 2 would open the way to a wider subset of qualifying patients.
“The amendment language, as it stands, is subject to interpretation,” Young said. “I think that the authors of the amendment, who I’ve met with, believe that the definition of the debilitating medical conditions is pretty global.”
Bradley responded that he was reluctant to allow medical marijuana usage for any conditions beyond those specified in Amendment 2, passed in November 2016. He argued the 2014 version of the bill failed because it was overly broad on qualifying conditions.
Marijuana advocacy groups tout chronic pain as one of the conditions effectively treated by medical marijuana. Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told Watchdog earlier this year that chronic pain is the condition with the most scientific evidence to support using medical marijuana as a treatment.
Chronic pain is not specifically mentioned in the amendment, however, and Bradley said national trends on pain medication abuse made him reluctant to allow chronic pain to be a qualifying condition.
Senator Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee asked about the feasibility of allowing medical marijuana for lingering chronic pain that resulted from an accident, such as a bad back injury.
“I don’t think we’re compelled to include chronic pain that isn’t related to an underlying condition,” Bradley responded.
While state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, suggested that anorexia and other mental health conditions might “benefit from the utilization of medical cannabis,” Bradley continued to advocate caution.
“Shame on society for what I’m about to say: This has not been researched like it should. The main reason is because it’s a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that the federal government has determined it has no medicinal value,” he said.
He added that that Legislature was in the unfortunate position of having less available research at hand than would normally be the case with drugs intended for treating serious medical conditions.
Snowbirds came up as another sticky issue. Bradley argued that the differing nature of state laws on medical marijuana made limiting access to Florida residents alone a sensible choice.
Young, noting that Braynon’s bill would allow out-of-state residents to use medical marijuana, said she thought restricting access to Florida residents might put the state on better legal footing, especially in light of a federal guideline memorandum that deals with federal enforcement of medical marijuana.
Access in rural areas
Several senators brought up the issue of overly-restrictive licensing creating the potential for access gaps in rural areas and in municipalities that ban medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs). Bradley and Young said delivery options made that less of a concern.
Young said she expected local moratoriums to follow the same path as in her own county of Hillsborough, adding that an initial moratorium was lifted after it met with resident disapproval. “Hillsborough has now a very comprehensive ordinances dealing with dispensary locations,” she said.
Doing it all
The last controversial topic lawmakers discussed was the proper regulatory framework for MMTCs. The current framework, enacted before Amendment 2, mandates vertical integration, meaning the seven currently licensed organizations must complete all steps of the supply chain — growing, distributing and selling — in house.
“There are lot of entities that have invested significant dollars in infrastructure towards this day and so this is an important issue,” Bradley said.
Bradley’s PAC, Friends of Families, has received $90,000 of funding from the current dispensary giants. His S.B. 406 cosponsor, Young, has received funding from dispensary Costa Farms.
“Growing something is different than processing it than selling it. They require different talents,” said Vice Chair Kathleen Passidomo, R- Naples. “Are you open to a suggestion about looking at it differently, as long as we have the regulation?”
This approach is seen in the Brandes bill, which would break up licensing requirements. Bradley advocated against allowing that type of sub-market specialization.
“I think the public policy argument is stronger to retain vertical,” he said. “I think it’s stronger because this is a heavily regulated endeavor.”
He added that although the Florida Department of Health and Office of Compassionate Use are doing their best with the available resources, a more complex, multi-tiered system would be more challenging to oversee.
The Florida Legislature has until July to determine the new medical marijuana regulations.