State regulators have told a South Florida medical marijuana provider to quit selling “unapproved” vape pens.
The Department of Health‘s Office of Medical Marijuana Use sent a “cease and desist” letter Monday to Curaleaf of Miami.
It also tells the company to stop “running unapproved advertisements encouraging (its) product to be used in a manner inconsistent” with state law.
Florida bans medical marijuana from being smoked, but does allow vaporizing, or “vaping.” Vape pens generally are battery-powered devices that heat the cannabis, allowing the user to inhale the vapor produced.
The state told Curaleaf, formerly called Costa Nurseries, that it had not yet OK’d its brand of vaporizer device.
Curaleaf is what’s known in Florida as a medical marijuana treatment center, or MMTC, a vertically-integrated operation that combines growing, processing and retail sales of medicinal cannabis.
Regulators also cited Curaleaf for “post(ing) an advertisement to its Facebook account (this month) displaying an open herb cartridge with the contents visible.”
“Not only was the Facebook advertisement detailed above not approved, it clearly encourages an improper use of the product,” the letter said.
“Licensed MMTCs have a responsibility to ensure their product is not one that could be easily transitioned into a smokable use.” The Facebook ad “must be removed immediately.”
Failure to comply “will result in a $1,000 fine to $10,000 fine per violation,” the letter adds, with further penalties including the loss of Curaleaf’s MMTC license.
The state gave Curaleaf 24 hours to respond in writing. A company representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
In a related matter, Trulieve this month filed a petition with the department, accusing the agency of dragging its feet on allowing that company to once again sell its own vaping devices after a similar cease and desist letter.
Trulieve says it’s been waiting since July for approval to offer ceramic vaporizer cups filled with ground marijuana flower.
By Jim Rosica
After voters overwhelmingly legalized medical marijuana a year ago, Florida was supposed to issue ten new pot-growing licenses to nurseries by October 3. But the state has dragged its feet in implementing nearly every aspect of the law, from issuing cards to patients to passing basic regulations on who can smoke cannabis and when they can smoke it.
Now it's farmers' turn to be upset with Tallahassee. The state blew its October deadline to issue those new weed-growing licenses, and today a Miami-Dade-based grower, Bill's Nursery, sued the state in federal court to demand the Florida Department of Health (DOH) follow its own rules.
"The number of MMTCs [medical-marijuana treatment centers] currently operating in Florida has proven to be inadequate for a state so large in both population and geography," the nursery announced in a news release today. "The problem is exacerbated by the fact that different marijuana strains have varying effectiveness when treating different medical conditions, and the small number of MMTCs further limits the quantity and types of strains available to patients. Florida law required the DOH to issue ten additional licenses by October 3, 2017; yet the Department has failed to do so — an issue which patients say limits their access to lifesaving medicine."
by Jerry Iannelli
While much of the marijuana news has focused on potential federal interference with legalized marijuana and California joining the ranks of legal recreational marijuana states, Florida has started what should become a mammoth medical marijuana business.
Projections vary on the size of the Florida market for medical marijuana but the consensus estimate is that it will exceed $1 billion by 2020.
Sales started this year and business has rapidly expanded across the state. A list kept by the state shows that more than 1,200 doctors have been authorized to prescribe medical marijuana. When voters approved legalized medical marijuana in November 2016, that number stood at fewer than 300. The state Office of Medical Marijuana is granting licenses to doctors at the rate of about 20 per day.
Sunshine State goldmine
It doesn’t take an MBA to understand the confluence of factors that make Florida a great spot for the medical marijuana industry.
The state is the third most populous in the country,with nearly 21 million people living there according to recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. And 19.1 percent of the population is 65 years old or older, according to the Pew Research Center.
The elder population is likely to grow as the nationwide population gets older over the next 20 years. Older patients are among the most likely to want medical marijuana for issues such as chronic pain management.
Explosion in popularity.
Much of the growth in the number of doctors prescribing marijuana is in South Florida, according to state numbers. The Miami-Dade County area alone has 208 authorized doctors. In the Tampa Bay area, another population center for the state, there are 196.
Dispensaries also are popping up all over the state. So are specialized clinics that help patients obtain a medical marijuana card, necessary to get medical cannabis prescriptions filled. The industry is growing so fast that Gov. Rick Scott decided in June to sign a law dispensing with the 90-day waiting period between a physician visit and obtaining a medical marijuana card.
However, there have been issues. The state has struggled to keep up with the demand. The Miami Herald detailed issues some have had in getting prescriptions filled, with some waiting months before getting their medical marijuana card.
Part of the problem is that the number of medical marijuana patients is expected to grow quickly from around 30,000 to about 500,000.
The state advises that now it will take about 30 days to get a card. A patient must first get a diagnosis of certain allowable conditions and then a prescription from a doctor. That information must be put into a registry with a state, which will then review the application and grant the card if all criteria are met.
In Florida, these are called Compassionate Use Registry Identification cards.
Residents of Florida are not allowed to grow their own medical marijuana. Also, only certain illnesses and conditions allow for the use of cannabis. They include cancer, ALS, Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, chronic muscle spasm, seizures, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Read more: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/299523
Floridians are flocking to the state’s new medical marijuana program. More than 33,000 patients were registered to buy weed as of Aug. 23, up from fewer than 17,000 in early June, according to the state Department of Health.
The new industry already is moving in some unexpected directions. For instance, while Palm Beach County (population: 1.4 million) has no pot shops, The Villages, the heavily Republican retirement community in rural central Florida, has one dispensary and is about to get a second.
Trulieve operates a dispensary in nearby Lady Lake. And Liberty Health Sciences, another of the state-licensed cannabis providers, plans a location near The Villages, too. The company has signed a lease in Summerfield and is awaiting state regulatory approval to open, says George Scorsis, Liberty Health Sciences’ Florida head.
Scorsis says The Villages’ older demographic fits with the profile of patients who have medical issues that make them eligible for Florida’s pot program. And Scorsis says his own research shows residents of The Villages proved remarkably receptive to the notion of cannabis as medicine.
“We have done extensive time talking to patients,” Scorsis said. “I was amazed by how open the community was.”
By Jeff Ostrowski
The cannabis boom is under way in Florida, and government is struggling to keep up.
Thousands of new patients have sought access to medical marijuana this summer following the passage of a new law expanding the list of maladies that qualify for treatment. Since June 7, the number of patients certified over the entire first three years of Florida’s fledgling cannabis program has nearly doubled from 16,760 to more than 31,000.
But patients are finding it’s one thing to receive a doctor’s certification, and another to receive the state-issued identification card needed to legally place an order. Doctors seeking state-required training through a new course that has yet to be offered are equally frustrated, leading to a growing feeling that the Florida Office of Medical Marijuana Use and its 12 employees — nine of whom are part-time — are simply overwhelmed.
“I’m not sure the state was prepared,” said Pete Sessa, chief operating officer of the advocacy-minded Florida Cannabis Coalition.
Right now, the average patient — who might suffer from cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s or other serious illnesses — waits 30 days after applying to receive a medical marijuana card. And that’s if everything goes according to plan.
Patients on Facebook message groups and frustrated doctors tell stories about unexplained delays, applications rejected on technicalities related to photos, and paperwork lost in the mail. Cory Young, a cancer survivor and former paramedic from the Florida Keys who suffers from neuropathy and post-traumatic stress disorder, said he waited on hold for hours over five frustrating weeks trying to find out what happened to his application and $75 money order.
At one point, he was told his application was incomplete because his physician began the process online and Young finished it by sending documents and payment in the mail. Last week, though, Young said he learned from an email that his card was being printed.
“Their system is absolutely broken,” he said.
The pace may be frustrating, but patients are slowly receiving their cards. As of Aug. 6, the state had awarded 12,226, according to a spokeswoman. And, even if patients have to wait a month, that’s still an improvement on the 90-day waiting period for new patients required by law as recently as June.
Still, physicians and patients say it’s unnecessary.
“I think it’s crazy that patients still are waiting four weeks to get their card. That’s ridiculous. And most of the time, they’re getting their card [applications] returned,” said Michelle Weiner, a South Florida Interventional Pain Management Physician qualified to issue marijuana recommendations. “I have cancer patients who are still suffering.”
by David Smiley
Florida cities and counties are in a dilemma about pot.
State lawmakers approved regulations in June that left city and county officials with a Hobson's choice about the sale of medical marijuana in their communities.
Local governments can either impose outright bans on medical-marijuana dispensaries or allow unlimited numbers of marijuana retail outlets, under an “all or nothing” approach approved during a special legislative session.
Dozens of cities have approved or are considering temporary moratoriums on medical- marijuana dispensaries, but it's unknown exactly how many local governments have acted on the issue, because nobody —- including state health officials —- is officially keeping track.
Marijuana operators' search for retail space has bloomed after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November that legalized marijuana for a broad swath of patients with debilitating medical conditions.
The scramble for retail outlets is expected to intensify as the number of marijuana operators continues to increase, and as local governments seek ways to restrain the sales of cannabis in their communities, at least for now.
As another result of the legislation approved during the June special session, state health officials recently authorized five new medical marijuana operations, on top of the seven businesses already active in the state. Five more are supposed to come online in October.
Nearly 72 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment last fall, making it difficult for local officials to close the door completely on the sale of medical cannabis.
But while saying they respect the will of voters, many local officials also want the power to regulate the number of dispensaries, and where the businesses can be sited, something that's essentially off the table in the new state law, which requires local governments to treat medical marijuana distribution centers in the same way pharmacies are handled.
Most cities and counties don't have special regulations regarding pharmacies, but instead treat them like other retail, or “light commercial,” businesses.
While some communities contemplate new zoning rules for pharmacies, a move that also could curb the development of marijuana dispensaries, others are focused on the cannabis retail outlets.
For example, St. Augustine Beach commissioners last week approved a moratorium barring medical-marijuana dispensaries from opening in the waterfront community.
“I think the main reason was just wanting to see how the situation is going to shake out and what sort of problems might occur with the sales of this stuff. There was no particular anxiety over it, but I think it's a fear of the unknown,” said Jim Wilson, a lawyer who represents the city. “We're a small community, and we'd rather see how this works elsewhere before we connect into it. It may work out fine later on.”
But Sen. Rob Bradley, who has been a key player in the creation and passage of the state's medical-marijuana laws the past three years, said the new regulations were meant to encourage competition in the state's burgeoning marijuana industry.
“I would encourage our local partners to see the bigger picture here. We are bringing online several new licenses over the next year-and-a-half. It's important for the long-term future of the medical marijuana industry that we have real competition among not only the incumbents but the new license holders,” Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and former prosecutor, said in a recent interview. “If local governments were allowed at this point in time to restrict in their communities the number of dispensaries to only one or two or three, that would provide an unacceptable advantage to the incumbents.”
Regarding local officials' fears about what are disparagingly known as “pot shops,” Bradley said he thinks they may be uninformed.
“When I see some of the comments from local officials, I'm not sure that they've read the details of the law. We have strict limitations on advertising and signage, and all of these dispensaries are required to have a doctor's office feel,” he said.
The new restrictions imposed by the Legislature, paired with a push by marijuana operators to open retail facilities, create “an awkward situation for a lot of cities,” said John Wayne Smith, a lobbyist who represents numerous cities and counties as well as the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.
While local governments are largely focused on budget issues during the summer, they may turn their attention to medical marijuana later in the year, Smith predicted.
Others may wait for the Legislature to revamp the state law.
“I would say that it's probably half-baked and this is probably an issue that is going to evolve and get tweaked over the next five to 10 years,” Smith said.
But the passage of the state-imposed prohibition on local governments' ability to limit the number of retail outlets poses a problem for cities like Lake Worth, which authorized two medical marijuana dispensaries before approving a moratorium aimed at preventing others from opening.
It's unclear, however, whether the new state law will require the city to open its doors to more dispensaries, an issue on which municipal lawyers are divided.
By doing a nothing or all, and because we already have two, this is what you've done to my city. Everyone around me has a moratorium, but you've now told my city it's a free-for-all,” Lake Worth City Commissioner Andy Amoroso told The News Service of Florida.
Amoroso stressed that he supports legalization of recreational marijuana and endorses the use of medical marijuana for sick patients. But he also emphasized that the state law “jeopardizes what our cities look like.”
Lake Worth is surrounded by other communities that have banned the sales of medical marijuana, meaning that retailers will likely target his city, Amoroso maintained.
Lake Worth officials need “to be able to control” what their 7-square-mile city “looks like,” Amoroso said.
“If I have medical marijuana on every corner, I can't do that,” he said.
But Orlando city attorney Kyle Shephard said he believes a moratorium recently passed by his commission will allow the city to stop any more medical-marijuana retail shops from opening.
“Every city attorney may answer this differently, depending on their own local situation,” Shepard told the News Service.
Orlando adopted its ordinance allowing up to seven medical marijuana dispensaries before the state law (SB 8-A) was passed, Shepard said. The city believes that means its ordinance won't be affected by the new law.
“If you didn't get your rules on the books before SB 8 went into effect at the end of June, then you are sort of hamstrung,” Shepard said.
Orange Park council members recently advanced an ordinance that would prohibit pharmacies from opening in “light” commercial areas —- something that wouldn't affect any of the drug stores currently in operation, according to Mayor Scott Land.
The town council approved the new regulation in response to the state law, which the mayor called “an all or nothing, almost.”
“So instead of doing the all, a lot of people are going to probably choose the nothing,” he said. “I think it's going to make it difficult for the dispensaries.”
by Dara Kam
Hundreds of doctors in Florida are now certified to recommend medical marijuana for patients, and one of the biggest concentrations is in South Florida.
Palm Beach County ranks sixth of Florida’s 67 counties for the number of qualified doctors per resident. Miami-Dade County is ninth and Broward 15th.
More than 100 doctors signed on in the three weeks between June 16, and Aug. 4, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The increase comes as the state moves forward to implement a constitutional amendment approved by voters that allows marijuana use for certain ailments.
Still, patients in some parts of the state have no access and insurance doesn’t cover marijuana, so poorer patients could be priced out of the market.
Among recent changes:
- State lawmakers eliminated the 90-waiting period to get medical marijuana.
- There are now 957 doctors in Florida qualified to recommend medical marijuana, with 357 of them in South Florida.
- On a per capita basis, Monroe County has the most doctors who can recommend medical marijuana, with one for every 8,208 residents in the county, state numbers show. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all finish in the top 15 counties.
- Of Florida’s 30 largest cities, Boca Raton has the state’s highest per capita number of doctors credentialed to make the recommendations: one for every 4,005 residents.
- Most counties in the Panhandle have no doctors who have taken and passed the required $500, two-hour medical marijuana course. A four-county area in south central Florida — including Hardee, De Soto, Glades and Hendry counties — is in the same situation.
Doctors “recommend” marijuana rather than “prescribe” it, because it is a controlled substance. For that reason, many doctors have not signed up for fear of losing their federal licenses. And since pharmacies can’t carry it, there are dispensaries to distribute it.
How to get medical marijuana
Patients must have a qualifying ailment to receive marijuana. Those include cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, PTSD, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or “other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class,” per the amendment’s language.
To find a local doctor, check this list. You can also go to Floridahealth.gov or call the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use at 850-245-4657.
Once approved, the patient is entered into the state’s medical marijuana registry and then must apply for a medical marijuana card. According to Florida Department of Health spokesperson Mara Gambineri, that can take a month.
Patients can receive a 70-day supply at a time. After that, they must get a new recommendation, which can be phoned in. After 30 weeks, patients must once again see their doctor in person.
Insurance cannot cover any part of the process.
A typical in-person visit costs about $250. Patients also pay a $75 fee for their medical marijuana card. And then there’s the cost of buying the marijuana, which ranges from about $100 to $200 for a 70-day supply.
“It’s pricey for the patients,” said Dr. Bruce Stratt, who treats about 50 medical marijuana patients at his Boca Raton clinic. “And the people I’m seeing are sick people. They need their medicine.”
He has used the law’s “other debilitating medical conditions” provision to prescribe marijuana for auto-immune diseases similar to Crohn’s, severe arthritis and chronic pain from nervous system damage.
After an initial consultation, Stratt places a patient on the state’s medical marijuana registry and walks the patient through the application to get a medical marijuana card. His office manager even takes their photo, as the Department of Health has photo requirements similar to those of a passport.
Patients face a wait period of about 30 days as their application is processed.
“We have seen a significant and steady increase in the volume of card applications since Amendment 2 went into effect,” said Gambineri, the Health Department spokesperson.
The number of licensed growers has increased from seven under an old, less-expansive medical marijuana law passed in 2014 to 12 in August, with five more to be added in October.
Those in-state growers will have to supply all of the medical marijuana for Florida’s patients — it would violate federal law to transport the product across state lines.
But the growers agree they have enough capacity to supply patients.
Top 15 counties for medical marijuana doctors
- Monroe: one per 8,208 residents
- Martin: one per 8,676 residents
- Indian River: one per 10,684 residents
- Pinellas: one per 10,921 residents
- Hernando: one per 12,364 residents
- Palm Beach: one per 14,055 residents
- Sarasota: one per 14,165 residents
- Jefferson: one per 14,658 residents
- Miami-Dade: one per 16,237 residents
- Hillsborough: one per 16,254 residents
- St. Lucie: one per 16,493 residents
- Citrus: one per 17,504 residents
- Okaloosa: one per 18,348 residents
- St. Johns: one per 19,582 residents
- Broward: one per 20,002 residents
By Daniel Sweeney
TALLAHASSEE — Orlando attorney John Morgan sued the state Thursday, saying a new law that bans smoking medical marijuana violates the constitutional amendment that he fought to get approved.
“Today is a day that should not have been necessary, other than the Florida Legislature decided not to do their job,” Morgan said.
A law signed by Gov. Rick Scott that took effect Saturday sets up rules surrounding the medical marijuana industry, which was legalized through a constitutional amendment that Morgan helped put on the ballot and was approved by voters last November.
Morgan contends that because the ballot amendment says that smoking medical marijuana in public could be banned, it should be assumed that smoking it in private would be legal.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if smoking is not allowed in public, it must certainly be allowed in private,” Morgan said. “That’s the intent. That’s what we said before we started.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, the state agency overseeing the new rules, said they have not received the lawsuit yet but will review it.
The lawsuit, filed in Leon Circuit Court, seeks a declaration from the court that smoking medical marijuana is legal.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who sponsored the legislation and insisted on the smoking ban, defended lawmakers’ actions, saying he was certain courts would uphold the law.
Rodrigues said other states that permit smoking of medical marijuana made it clear in the proposals that went before their voters.
“If you look at those other states, their constitutional amendments declared that it could be smoked and that it could be self-grown. If that’s what John Morgan wanted for Florida, he should have declared it in the amendment,” Rodrigues said.
Morgan, though, said he believes lawmakers trying to clamp down against the will of the voters will instead spark a move toward fully legalized recreational use of marijuana, and he’s ready to lead the charge.
“If they [expletive] me off too much, I’ll address the smoking issue by having a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana,” he said. “If I lose in court, I’ll go through all the marijuana people I know — it won’t take a lot of money — and we will move to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Then they’ll really be sorry they pushed me.”
The medical marijuana amendment passed with 71 percent of the vote last November. It legalizes medical marijuana for patients with cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or other debilitating medical conditions.
Morgan tried and failed to pass a medical marijuana ballot measure in 2014. In total, Morgan raised $14.3 million, including $6.8 million of his own money, to advocate for the amendment over the past four years.
The law passed by the Legislature has disappointed supporters of the amendment, who say it puts too many regulations on the new industry. The law limits the number of licenses to grow marijuana to 17, with each license holder allowed a maximum of 25 dispensaries.
Meanwhile, some local governments, including Winter Park and Maitland, have threatened to block dispensaries from setting up shop in their cities. Orlando may cap its dispensaries at two.
But it is the smoking ban that spurred Morgan to file suit. The law only allows for cannabis products to be vaped, sold as oils and as edibles.
In his suit, Morgan cites a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows “marijuana smoking was shown to not impair lung function, based on the doses inhaled by the majority of users, as compared to non-smokers and tobacco smokers. In fact, marijuana smoking was shown to increase lung capacity.”
In any case, people with life-threatening diseases aren’t worried about the potential negative effects of smoking in the future, Morgan said.
“Do we give a rat’s ass if a person died from ALS smokes instead of vapes? I don’t,” Morgan said.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for decreased use of marijuana, disputes this and pointed to statements from the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and other health groups expressing skepticism about the effectiveness of medical marijuana.
“Patients suffering from debilitating chronic illness deserve access to the very best modern medicine has to offer to alleviate their pain — not spurious solutions offered by modern day snake oil salesmen,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of SAM.
by Gray Rohrer
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.
Lawmakers passed the measure (SB 8A) in a special session after failing in their regular session that ended in May to implement a constitutional amendment legalizing the drug, which was supported by 71 percent of voters last year.
Under the constitutional amendment, patients with a host of conditions can buy and use medical marijuana. Among the conditions that qualify for the drug: cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and epilepsy.
The new law also sets in motion a plan to license 10 new companies as growers by October, bringing the statewide total to 17.
It allows patients to use cannabis pills, oils, edibles and “vape” pens with a doctor’s approval, but bans smoking.
Lawsuits are likely to follow. John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the constitutional amendment’s campaign, has promised to sue over the smoking ban, and Tampa strip club magnate Joe Redner said he will file a suit because people cannot grow their own plants.
“Great Scott,” Morgan said Friday after hearing that Scott signed the bill. “It’s a no-brainer. Gov. Scott wants to run for U.S. Senate. If he didn’t sign this bill, he couldn’t run for dog catcher.
“It’s not perfect. I’m going to sue for the smoking but I know there are sick people who will see relief starting in July.’’
The marijuana law was among 38 bills Scott signed Friday afternoon.
He also approved a measure (HB 441) that will give court clerks added protection in public record cases.
Current law does not specify whether clerks can be sued for handing out information that is supposed to be protected from public disclosure if the lawyers who filed documents with that information did not mark it as confidential. Now, they will have that protection.
And a bill (HB 689) to let anyone with a beer and wine license sell sake beginning July 1 was signed into law as well.
by Michael Auslen
For a moment on Friday, as Florida leaders announced plans for this week's special legislative session, it was believed medical marijuana would be added to the list of contentious issues on tap for resolution.
After all, if cooler heads could compromise on the year's biggest fight — money for economic development under Enterprise Florida — surely they could agree on the rules that will guide the growth of Florida's budding medical marijuana industry.
Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
Rather, the Florida House and Senate remain deadlocked over how to regulate what's expected to become the nation's largest medical marijuana marketplace.
It shouldn't be so difficult to implement the will of 71 percent of Florida voters, who last November approved a state constitutional amendment that legalizes the use of medical marijuana by people with debilitating conditions. The amendment says the implementing rules must be written by July 3. If lawmakers fail to do their job, the state Department of Health will take over. And history says we don't want that.
To be clear, medical marijuana needs government regulation, despite the bad name given government regulations. This is a medicine, after all. It is either ingested or inhaled. It affects behavior and body chemistry. It is more like alcohol and tobacco than retail consumer goods, and should be regulated as such. On this, everyone agrees.
But as always, the devil is in the details.
Here's our take on the differences, and how to bridge the divide:
Caps on dispensaries: Seven companies currently hold licenses to cultivate, distribute and dispense medical marijuana in Florida. They were chosen a couple years back after lawmakers legalized a non-euphoric strain of marijuana, called Charlotte's Web.
The state health department wrote the implementing rules and gave the licenses to five nurseries — one in each of five regions of Florida. To be considered, a nursery had to have been in business for 30 years and have an inventory of 400,000 plants. Later, two other licenses were awarded to companies that successfully challenged the process. A recent court ruling might mean two more companies get licensed, too.
Incredibly, these licenses aren't limited to cultivating marijuana, a new product for growers who previously specialized in trees, shrubs and house plants. Rather, they give these nurseries exclusive control of the supply chain — from "seed to store" — no matter their lack of experience in manufacturing, prescribing or dispensing drugs.
The winning nurseries quickly teamed up with companies that filled in the gaps. Still, the health department's monopolistic rules created the foundation for today's standoff.
When the legislative session ended on May 8, the House — under Speaker Richard Corcoran — wanted to award another 10 licenses by next July and cap at 100 the number of dispensaries a company could open around the state.
The Senate — under President Joe Negron — also wanted another 10 licenses awarded, but by October, reducing the head-start of the first seven companies, which are busy scooping up investors and securing prime storefront locations. More importantly, the Senate wanted to cap at 15 the number of dispensaries each company could own.
"The House version, with the caps and the timing of new licenses, would give a gigantic advantage to the existing license-holders," says Ben Pollara, who along with Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, led the constitutional amendment drive. By capping a company's retail outlets and giving more companies access to the marketplace, he believes the Senate took the more free-market approach, a value trumpeted by the Republicans who control Tallahassee.
Morgan holds the opposite view. "To me, Negron is the problem. He's the most un-free-market Republican I have ever met. … It's like telling Walgreens you can have five stores in Florida. There's how many counties in Florida? 67?"
Morgan agrees the House proposal "would keep monopolies. It would. But do we care about that? There would be 17 to begin with and other licenses would come with demand. Isn't 17 better than seven?"
Negotiations fell apart on the session's last day after the Senate proposed capping dispensaries at 15, up from 10, but far beyond its starting point of three, then five. The House countered with 50, down from 100. When the counteroffer was quickly rejected, the House amended its bill back to 100. And that was that.
Absent the legalization of recreational marijuana, no one expects today's patient pool — estimated at about 500,000 — will support 17 license-holders with 100 stores. And in the 27 states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, no company has more than 25 outlets.
But money-wise, the cap means a great deal to the value of these nursery conglomerates. The Miami Herald recently discovered one company's pitch to investors. It said it expects to gross $138 million in sales by 2021— based on the premise of opening 55 retail outlets. The brochure also said Florida's medical marijuana marketplace is forecast to generate $2 billion a year.
We don't know where the cap should be set, though somewhere around 25 sounds like middle ground — not a free market, but not a closed monopoly, either.
We also agree that 17 is better than seven, and awarding these licenses sooner than later would better allow more companies to compete on product, price and service, which best serves patients.
A few other issues:
Franchises: Both chambers would preserve the "vertical integration" that gives nursery conglomerates control of the supply chain from seed to store. However, the Senate would let these companies subcontract or franchise opportunities. The House would ban subcontracting for any part of the business that touches marijuana, leaving only things like janitorial, security and professional services.
Morgan suggests franchises are the future and companies will make their real money by selling product to them. At issue is who would approve potential franchisees — the company or the state? This doesn't seem an insurmountable obstacle. If franchises help mom-and-pops open businesses and grow jobs, unshackle the chains.
No Smoking: Both the House and Senate would ban people from smoking medical marijuana, a position sure to draw a lawsuit from Morgan. Given that the constitutional amendment says smoking medical marijuana in public places doesn't have to be accommodated, voters clearly anticipated that patients would be able to smoke medical marijuana. Plus, cancer patients have reported greater relief from smoking marijuana than the pill derivative. Lawmakers should avoid committing taxpayers to a lawsuit they're sure to lose. Kill the "no smoking" provision. Let doctors decide the best administration method.
90-day rule: The House proposed making patients wait 90 days before they could get treatment. It's an arbitrary timeframe with no business in law. Again, let doctors decide how best to treat their patients.
Debilitating conditions, including pain: The amendment says doctors may prescribe medical marijuana for patients with debilitating conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class."
That last clause is the door-opener. The House proposed that to treat any patient with an unlisted condition, doctors must submit a great deal of justification to the Florida Board of Medicine, a step too far.
However, the House would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for chronic pain. The Senate would not. Rather, the upper chamber said pain must be tied to one of the listed conditions.
Experience elsewhere suggests medical marijuana could help curb the opioid epidemic, which is largely fueled by people taking prescription or illicit drugs for chronic pain. More research is clearly needed. Again, in the interim, lawmakers should trust doctors to do what's best.
Will some doctors violate standards and will some patients misrepresent their conditions? Yes, they will. But by allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for chronic pain, researchers will get a better handle on whether it works. And if it doesn't, changes can be made.
Research: Both chambers want Florida to be a leader in data, analysis and research on medical marijuana. As in other states, patient names will be entered into a registry accessible only to doctors, dispensaries and law enforcement. The research that comes from this registry should help policymakers better understand the landscape and whether changes are needed.
In the final analysis, the two chambers aren't light years apart.
Rather than let bureaucrats write more flawed rules, legislative leaders should commit this week to passing a law that provides proper direction to Florida's new medical marijuana industry.
Award the 10 new licenses this fall. Meet in the lower middle on dispensary caps, maybe 25. And implement the will of the people, who seem to have gotten lost in the debate.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andrew Abramson, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.