TAMPA BAY TIMES Editorial: Voter intent on medical marijuana ignored

The Florida Department of Health's first draft of rules authorizing medical marijuana falls far short of what is prescribed in the voter-approved constitutional amendment. State regulators are proposing only a limited expansion of Florida's existing program and an unwarranted restriction on which patients can access it. Amendment 2, approved by more than 70 percent of voters, legalizes marijuana for people with an array of ailments, and the state is obligated to craft a program that ensures access to it.
Before the constitutional change took effect Jan. 3, Florida allowed terminally ill patients to use full-strength marijuana and certain other patients to use a strain low in THC to alleviate pain and other symptoms. Seven growers are authorized to produce and sell marijuana for the entire Florida market. With the approval of Amendment 2, full-strength marijuana is legal for patients with several conditions specified in the ballot language, such as cancer, HIV, glaucoma and PTSD, or "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated, and for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."

That means it should be up to a patient's doctor to determine whether marijuana would be an appropriate treatment. But the Department of Health's proposed rules say the drug should be legal only for the ailments specified plus those approved by the state Board of Medicine. Amendment 2 makes no mention of the Board of Medicine, and the rule that is ultimately adopted should conform with the clear intent of the amendment.

The proposed rules also stick with the current number of seven growers authorized to sell medical marijuana, even though Florida's market is poised to gain hundreds of thousands of customers. The rules don't allow separate entities to grow, produce and distribute marijuana products, adhering to the current "vertical integration" model that requires growers to be equipped to service the entire supply chain from seed to storefront. Legislation filed by Sen. by Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, goes a little further, requiring that five more growers be licensed within six months of there being 250,000 patients in the state. The Health Department's proposals maintain the status quo that stymies competition and growth, and Bradley's bill does not do enough to change that.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is set to file a bill that would loosen that stranglehold while still requiring sensible regulation. Brandes proposes creating four separate licenses — for growers that cultivate the plants, processors that produce and package the products, retailers that sell them and transportation companies that deliver them to patients. Companies could obtain one or all four licenses for a one-stop shopping business model. There would be no limit on the number of growers in the state, letting the market determine how many Florida can support. Doctors would decide whether patients should be certified to use medical marijuana. On the regulation side, processors would be required to make products that look like medicine — no gummy bears — and are sold in clearly labeled packaging. Smokable marijuana would be allowed.

As several counties and municipalities have implemented moratoriums on medical marijuana storefronts, Brandes' bill would cede considerable control to local governments to restrict the number and location of retail outlets. But it would prohibit a cap on delivery-only facilities that don't sell directly to the public. The broad concepts in Brandes' bill, which is supported by the Florida for Care advocacy group, would provide a sound foundation for an industry that Floridians clearly want.

By defaulting to the limited medical marijuana program already on the books in Florida, the Department of Health is not following the intent of Amendment 2. Florida needs a comprehensive rewrite of existing regulations that reflects the will of the voters.

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