Marijuana plants await processing at Colorado marijuana retailer High Country Healing in Silverthorne in January 2015. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Florida medical marijuana bill with ‘Right to Try’ expansion heads to gov

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s contentious medical marijuana legislation is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

After 2½ hours of debate on Monday, the Senate approved a House version of a bill (HB 307) that would expand the so-called “Right to Try” act, allowing medical marijuana use for patients with terminal conditions. A similar measure, which allows all strengths and doses, didn’t pass last year.

Jeri Bustamante, the press secretary for Gov. Scott, said that the office is reviewing the bill. Scott has seven days to sign it.

Most of the 33-page bill deals with fixing problems that arose after the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act was signed into law in May of 2014. When legislators approved the state’s first medical marijuana bill two years ago, they thought children with epilepsy and those fighting cancer would begin receiving it in early 2015. But it got bogged down in legal challenges as the state was trying to set up a nascent industry that would not be like those in Colorado and California.

“Today was an important step to take back control of the situation and get it into the hands of families as soon as possible,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, who has been the bill’s main supporter in the Senate.

The bill, which passed 28-11, allows the five dispensing organizations approved last November to continue with the process of getting non-smokable marijuana to patients. Two have received cultivation authorization and may have marijuana available by late summer.

But it also allows for those with administrative challenges a chance to go through due process and possibly get a license. Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings ruled last month that a Northeast Florida nursery is in line for a license due to a background check being wrongly disqualified.

Bradley said by the time administrative challenges are finalized, there could be eight or nine distributing organizations. Hearings are scheduled to resume in April.

It also ensures that once the patient registry reaches 250,000 an additional three licenses will be made available, one of which will be designated for black farmers.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson said she wondered if that threshold would be reached since none of the states that have medical marijuana have that many patients. Other senators wondered if the new organizations would be at a disadvantage since the others would have a head start.

The bill also addresses labeling of medical marijuana for patients, security at facilities along, and penalties for doctors who wrongly prescribe it.

Many senators, including Bradley, realize that medical marijuana regulation is going to be an evolving process. Many who argued in support of the bill said they did so knowing it would be revisited in future sessions.

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

Bradley said passing the bill this year was equally important so that they wouldn’t get caught flat footed if it passes.

“Unfortunately, because of the persistent ineptitude of the state legislature, there are presently zero eligible medical marijuana patients in the state,” said Ben Pollara, who is the campaign manager for United for Care. “The bill’s passage today is merely more lipstick on the pig that is Tallahassee’s failed medical marijuana.”