Session Preview: Can Lawmakers Find Consensus On Drug Policies?

Feb 27, 2015

State lawmakers will consider changes to Florida's drug laws in the coming session.
Credit Pete Zarria

In the coming session, lawmakers will take up proposals altering the state’s policy for tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol.  Among the three, Florida’s drug policy could look quite a bit different by the time legislators head home.

The old truism that nothing good happens after midnight is a favorite among parents and grandparents.  That is unless they’re a bit on the strict side—then it’s probably nothing good happens after 10.  Whatever the case, state lawmakers are considering laws related to some of those late night activities our elders might prefer skipped. 

First, alcohol. 

Last year, an effort to legalize the 64 ounce growler died after getting bogged down with amendments.  Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) was loath to let the same fate befall the bill this session.  He’s championed the measure for years.  But Chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries committee, Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) prevailed on Latvala to expand its scope. 

But just a little.

Latvala’s bill removes the tourism exemption—a statutory provision relied upon by craft brewers to set up tap rooms where they brew their beer; it authorizes tastings in places 10,000 square feet or larger, and it requires alcohol by volume labeling for growlers.

Distribution interests raised concerns, but after an additional amendment, the bill passed the committee without objection.  It’s got two stops left before it hits the floor. 

Meanwhile, a far more extensive House measure sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) has met resistance from a number of different angles.

“I will be voting up on this bill today, but I do have grave concerns,” Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Fort Meyers) says, referring to Florida’s separate entrance requirement for liquor stores.  “I don’t see a compelling reason.  This is not the Berlin Wall, this wall does not need to come down.”

Rep. Joe Geller (D-Aventura) says, “I just want to say that I am very concerned about that craft distiller provision, I think it needs to be limited.”  Under current law, craft distillers can only sell two bottles of liquor, per person, per year.  Geller says the limit could be higher than that, but he opposes getting rid of it altogether.

“I’m not sure why the ninth amendment was pulled and a tenth amendment fixing the franchise language wasn’t proposed,” Committee Vice Chair Larry Ahern (R-Seminole) says.  Florida’s franchise laws regulate the business agreements between manufacturers and distributors.   

Last session, lawmakers approved a proposal allowing non-euphoric marijuana for certain patients.  Then in November, an activist movement bankrolled by personal injury lawyer John Morgan nearly passed a broader medical marijuana ballot initiative—Amendment 2.  Now Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is raising the issue in the legislature in part to deflate future support for marijuana at the ballot box. 

“My opinion on Amendment 2, and my feeling is really that it needs to run through the legislative process,” Brandes says.  “I want it to be able to be vetted; I want it to be able to have public comment—from those that are for it, and against it; I want people to bring ideas to make it better.  Those are things that are offered in statute that are really difficult to offer in constitution.”

But the state’s sheriffs have come out in opposition to Brandes’ bill, and some other Republican lawmakers would rather let last year’s non-euphoric legislation settle before expanding access to the drug. 

In addition to Brandes, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) has filed a bill to declassify cannabis as a controlled substance.  But parents and grandparents alike should rejoice, as this legalization measure is largely rhetorical.  It has no real shot of passing the Legislature, much less the Governor’s pen.

Finally, there’s tobacco. 

Members of the House Finance and Tax committee are taking aim at so-called roll-your-own shops.  These stores sell loose tobacco that customers load into a machine.  The machine then packs it into cigarettes.  The cartons are cheaper than mainstream brands because they don’t pay manufacturing taxes. 

Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood) doesn’t think that’s right.

“Because of a really tortured explanation of these laws, they’re crawling through this crack, [and] they’re enjoying not playing $1.34 in Florida taxes and $1.00 in federal taxes,” Plakon says.

Committee Chair Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) tasked Plakon with writing a bill bringing roll-your-own shops within the scope of manufacturing taxes, but the bill itself hasn’t been filed yet. 

As we move into March, clearly there are plenty of competing ideas.  But whether there will be consensus is another issue entirely.