Marijuana is grown in pots at a house in Montevideo, Uruguay in April 2014. (Miguel Rojo, AFP/Getty Images)

Florida House passes medical pot bill to fix gaps in current system

Lawmakers seek to protect patients after 2014 act got bogged down by administrative challenges

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida House passed its second medical marijuana bill in three years Thursday.

Legislators acknowledged that Rep. Matt Gaetz’s bill (HB 307) is not a panacea for all of the problems that have arisen the past two years, but that it does make significant progress.

The bill, which passed with a 99-16 vote, expands the Right to Try act allowing near-death patients to use nonsmokable marijuana of all strengths and doses. It also adds regulations for dispensing organizations, patients and physicians covered by the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act.

“I wish we could go and pick a regulatory model and say that is the yellow brick road — that’s what works — and copy it,” Gaetz said. “There are stumbles and challenges, but you have to have brains, courage and heart to get things done.”

When the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act was passed two years ago, legislators expected that families of children suffering from epilepsy would begin receiving medical marijuana in early 2015. More than a year later, the process has been bogged down in administrative challenges while the Department of Health has come under intense criticism for its handling of it.

The five dispensing organizations were selected in November. Hackney Nursery in Quincy and Alpha-Surterra Foliage in Homestead have received cultivation authorization. Susan Driscoll, the president and managing director of Alpha-Surterra, said the business is on track to have medical marijuana products available in June.

“The focus in our debates (this year) have been largely on who gets to grow and lobby. The focus, though, has to be on the patients and expanding it,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, one of the sponsors of the bill.

Challenges to dispensing licenses are pending in all but one region. The Division of Administrative Hearings will not begin hearing those until April 11.

The legislation ensures that those with challenges will receive due process. It also ensures that three additional licenses will be granted when the patient registry reaches 250,000.

“We have to green-light the path of the existing license holders to patients. This bill addresses that and removes a barrier that exists between dying people and the choices they make with medical cannabis,” Gaetz said.

The bill addresses testing, labeling and security at facilities along with protection for patients.

A similar bill is before the Florida Senate. Gaetz said he was enthusiastic about the chances in the Senate but many amendments have been attached to the measure sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley.

Gaetz said the bills are functionally identical.

The measure also comes as voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in November’s general election. A similar measure was on the ballot in 2014 and received 58 percent approval, which was 2 percent shy of what was needed for passage.