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Cannabinoid Contretemps

Weed wars resume in Tallahassee


It’s a new year and a new governor in Tallahassee, but certain veteran legislators want to maintain the status quo—at least when it comes to medical cannabis.

Exhibit A: the Senate Health Policy Committee chopped up, then grudgingly passed a medical cannabis bill introduced by Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican, who may be one of the few lowercase-l libertarians left in politics. He’s been especially forward on the cannabis issue, and in this session, he advanced a simple piece of legislation. Namely, a bill that would allow medical cannabis patients to smoke the leaf.

Right now, oils, tinctures, capsules and creams are acceptable. But for those seeking the “full spectrum” of cannabis benefits, such as the lupus patient who testified last week in committee, the most efficient way is to simply smoke the herb.

Florida Republicans have been less than excited about medical cannabis. After a 2014 referendum failed, they brought in a low-THC program. The 2016 referendum passed with more than 70 percent of the vote, leading to the unlikely scenario of Gov. Rick Scott presiding over the rollout.

As is the case with many statewide programs, it has its problems. The Office of Medical Marijuana Use had delays registering patients, and there have been lots of rule-making sessions. For all those hiccups, the program has rolled out. It’s approaching 200,000 patients now, with conditions ranging from cancer and multiple sclerosis to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The program works well for many patients. For those seeking “whole flower,” however, there currently is no recourse.

Hence, the Brandes bill.

The committee hearing didn’t go so well for the bill, alas, with Brandes’ fellow Republicans all but “loving the bill to death.” One of them is from this area: Senator Aaron Bean, who spent several minutes rehearsing reefer madness tropes.

“I want to advance this with the proper restrictions … I’m on edge … I want to move gingerly,” Bean said.

Committee Chair Gayle Harrell outdid Bean, though, saying cannabis was linked to psychosis: “We have some responsibility and to first do no harm.” Harrell pushed an amendment onto the bill, requiring that any patient who wants smokable cannabis will have to see (and pay for) a second doctor to make that recommendation. That second doctor, paradoxically, would not have taken the courses necessary to prescribe medical cannabis, ensuring that an adversary of the program itself would have the final say. Advocates said any bill that passed with that condition would get an immediate legal challenge. It didn’t matter.

It also didn’t matter that the bill sponsor himself noted he didn’t recognize his bill anymore. What mattered: making that moldy old point that cannabis is a killer, and that nothing heals like good old-fashioned American opioids. To illustrate that, the committee took about two minutes to approve a bill that created collection points for opioid exchanges … a bill Harrell said she couldn’t wait to get to during committee.

The House is going to treat a smokable cannabis bill even worse, bet on it.

This all runs counter to what Governor Ron DeSantis, who was not the primary choice of many in Tallahassee, wants. On the campaign trail even before the primary, DeSantis promised to “fully implement” 2016’s Amendment 2, which brought the program into being. Fully implementing the amendment and applying voter intent means that medical patients have the right to smoke cannabis. More recently, he said that the smoking ban “ran afoul” of the amendment, and even called the big companies producing cannabis in Florida “cartels,” a phrase he may not use twice.

“Everyone knew what that amendment meant. I mean, it was very clear. There was an overwhelming support for it. So we’ve just got to enact a statute that is going to pass constitutional muster,” he said. “Some of the things that I criticized, the way they did the organization, as a free-market guy, that wasn’t necessarily something I liked. You probably can do a lot of different approaches and it’d still be constitutional.”

DeSantis may give in on vertical integration, which has advantages as Florida companies move into other markets. But will he give in on smoke? It’s doubtful.

Ron DeSantis may be the most misunderstood politician in Florida. He played the Trump card when needed as a candidate, but his first few weeks in office have shown him to be a leader with sympathy and depth. Of course, he hasn’t had to deal with the House and Senate much yet. That can take the light out of any man’s eyes.


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