Puff, Puff, PASS?

A few short weeks ago, Folio Weekly ran a cover story attempting to outline the near-term future of medical marijuana in Florida.

Even before the legislative session begins its “60 days” in early March, we’re seeing a robust debate emerge between two powerful senators, with one filing a bill intended to offer a regulatory framework, and the other immediately raising questions.

On Jan. 19, Sen. Rob Bradley filed Senate Bill 406. 

In essence, the bill is one attempt to put meat on the bones of Amendment 2, including establishing prescription criteria, penalties for trying to “fraudulently” prescribe or acquire MMJ, and conditions for expansion of the market of acceptable medical marijuana providers.

As the patient registry grows, more Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers will come on line. Not immediately — but within six months of the user count hitting certain thresholds (250K, 350K, 400K, 500K and so on) — five more MMTCs will be added.

Bradley has used his power in the Senate to shape a “go it slow” approach to the cannabis industry. He framed his press release quote to announce the bill in that gradualism.

“In 2014, the Florida Legislature legalized low-THC medical marijuana, and in 2016 expanded the medical marijuana system to provide legal access to marijuana for terminally ill Floridians,” wrote Bradley in the release, the day he filed the bill.

“Floridians want even more options, speaking loud and clear at the polls in November by passing Amendment Two. This bill significantly expands the current medical marijuana system to give Floridians the relief they have demanded, and it does so safely and quickly,” Bradley added.

Indeed, rules are to be laid down by July 3, including the beginning of a registry system for caregivers, patients and doctors. By October, the registry system should be fully up and running.

MMJ, in its current form, is strictly controlled in Florida. There are significant disincentives for prescribing beyond the letter of the law. Bradley’s bill would codify that. However, there’s going to be at least one more proposed legislation sooner rather than later. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, is likely to file it.

Almost immediately after Bradley filed his bill, Brandes was pushing a counternarrative.

“I am encouraged that Senator Bradley’s proposal expands access to medical marijuana for more patients, and I am further encouraged that his proposal begins to chip away at the unnecessary regulatory hurdles burdening Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers. However, I believe the voters of Florida voiced their overwhelming support for a new approach to the regulation of medical marijuana in this state, not a revision to the existing framework,” Brandes said in a statement the same day.

“I am continuing to work on what I believe is the most free-market option to address the implementation of Amendment 2. I look forward to releasing my proposal in the coming weeks and working with Senator Bradley as well as my fellow colleagues to implement the will of the Florida voters,” Brandes added.

What will that “free-market option” look like?

It could have a carve-out for delivery services in cities that have retail moratoria. It almost certainly would remove the cartelized and lobbied-up restrictions limiting outfits that can make money off this industry. It might also expand the allowable conditions for treatment to include maladies like recurrent nausea, muscle spasms and seizures.

The Florida Senate is a deliberative body, almost to a fault. The Bradley bill’s main weakness is that there are built-in barriers to access. The current set-up, one which the Bradley bill would codify, requires a Kabuki theater of proving to multiple doctors that the medicine would benefit a person.

That kind of overregulation could be seen as bad faith by some, and almost certainly will bolster the position of the black market — as people who could benefit from MMJ might bristle at the hoops through which they have to jump to prove their suffering to a medical professional from one of two very lobbied-up doctor groups (The Florida Medical Association and the equivalent for osteopaths).

A number of things could happen from here this session.

One scenario involves the Bradley bill or the Brandes bill prevailing. Then the bigger challenge: getting it through the much more conservative House. Bradley’s bill might be an easier sell there. Another scenario involves compromise: The bills are reconciled, and groundwork is laid in the House to move the reconciled version along. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is in Bradley’s camp, having said he’s going to take a literalist approach to the constitutional amendment.

The third scenario? Gridlock, or crash and burn. That doesn’t work for Brandes or Bradley, two ambitious, smart pols who have plans beyond the Senate.