The Florida Department of Health has decided not to appeal a court ruling invalidating much of the agency’s proposed rules for low-THC marijuana. This means the rulemaking process gets a reset, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a return to square one.
In the last legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a bill allowing certain patients—mostly those suffering from severe epilepsy—to use marijuana products low in THC. THC is the chemical compound that makes users feel high, so the assumption is people are unlikely to abuse low-THC products. But even so, getting that kind of legislation passed is a pretty big deal.
Ryan Wiggins, spokeswoman for Realm of Caring Florida certainly thinks so.
“You were dealing with an extremely conservative Republican legislature in an election year—who would have ever though it would pass,” Wiggins says.
Realm of Caring Florida is a nonprofit that advocates for low-THC products, and its director, Holley Moseley, was instrumental in getting the legislation passed. But since passage, the thorny process of implementing the law has come to the fore.
The rules proposed by the Department of Health have faced significant criticism—so much so that the rules were successfully challenged in court by a number of nurseries.
After the rules were thrown out, the Department of Health refused to discuss whether it planned to appeal, instead issuing a one-sentence statement saying it would consider all options in getting low-THC marijuana to patients as expeditiously as possible. Then on Monday December 15—the deadline for filing an appeal—the Department announced it would not, and it announced another public workshop for developing rules.
Ron Watson a lobbyist who’s been engaged with the rulemaking process from the beginning, says he’s frustrated with the Department’s timing.
“Frankly, I’m not surprised they chose not to appeal,” Watson says. “I’m a little disappointed they took the entire thirty days to make that decision. In all fairness, I know with the election and possible turnover of agency heads and things like that, maybe that’s what they needed all the time for.”
And Louis Rotundo, another lobbyist who has been active in the Department’s public hearings, agrees.
“Now as to their timing,” Rotundo says, “I’m very disappointed that another four weeks has gone by.”
And on top of that last minute response is the announcement the following day of a leadership change in the office charged with writing the rules.
But here’s the thing: all of them—Wiggins, Watson, and Rotundo are complimentary of outgoing director Linda McMullen, and they’re optimistic for the future—for various reasons.
Wiggins says the Moseley family is relying on faith.
“The one thing that Payton and Holley have always held to is this is a God thing,” Wiggins says. “So when you leave it up to God there’s not a lot of fear you can have there, and that’s how they live.”
Watson points out the department has a solid foundation even if it needs to make some changes.
“I guess what I would assume—and that’s all that it is, is an assumption—is that part of the rules coming back that weren’t specifically challenged, that a lot of us had thought were pretty good, would probably remain in place,” Watson says.
And they all point out the 800-pound-gorilla in the room. Here’s Rotundo.
“A lot of legislators, regardless of their personal beliefs, saw 58 percent of the people of Florida vote for something, and heard from their cousin, their aunt, their brother-in-law, their best friend, that there are a number of illnesses which may benefit from this drug,” Rotundo says.
And incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner says he’s heard some lawmakers are interested in revisiting the issue. But he dismisses suggestions the legislature should take up broader legalization in the wake of amendment two’s near passage last month. Some have argued this could short-circuit a potential ballot initiative in the next election.
“I think there will be some that will say well we need to do x, y or z because—to try to avoid a constitutional amendment in 2016,” Gardiner says. “I would caution everybody that—that I wouldn’t worry about that. To me, you just do the right thing, and don’t worry about ‘16, it’ll take care of itself.”
When the workshop convenes in Orlando later this month, it’s not clear if the Department will bring draft rules based on its earlier efforts or if it will return with a blank slate. Whatever the case, for patients eager to begin treatment, it appears they’ll remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.