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Proposed Lottery System For Marijuana Growers Has Precedence In Florida

Brett Levin via Flickr

The Florida Department of Health is sticking with a plan to award marijuana licenses to growers through a lottery system. The department issued its final draft for the proposed rule this week but critics maintain the lottery is unfair.

Lotteries in Florida are not unusual. Two years ago, the Florida Senate used a lottery-like system with green and white balls to hash out which Senators would run for a two-year term as a result of redistricting. Green meant whoever was in that district would have to run.

Credit The FLorida Channel
Senate staff prepare a "redistricting lotto" to determine which seats will run for two-year terms as a result of the 2012 redistricting session

There were more than a few displeased lawmakers. Take for example, Democratic Senator Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville. “Are the green balls from the factory in that color or are the green balls painted, therefore, making them heavier than the white balls?” Gibson asked.

The balls were ordered in that color.

Then, there’s the much more popular Florida Lottery, where hopefuls scratch of tickets and fill in bubbles for the chance to win millions. Profits go to fund the state’s college tuition scholarship program.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation uses a lottery to dole out liquor licenses to business. Demand, usually outweighs supply.

That’s the case now with the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana market. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but a new state rule is allowing a non-euphoric strain of the plant to be cultivated for people suffering from seizures. The Florida Department of Health wants to use a lottery to decide who will be among the five regional dispensaries granted a cultivation license. Needless to say, there’s a lot of competition for those pieces of paper.

“Um, the lottery. I think you all are married to the lottery. But I think this entire room would suggest you may want to consider getting divorced," said Ron Watson with the Florida Medical Cannibis Association at a July Florida Department of Health rulemaking workshop.  

Critics say the proposed marijuana lottery doesn’t consider the quality of the growing process, experience of the grower or whether they can produce the low-THC version of marijuana the law calls for. But the Florida Department of Health is going forward with its lottery plan. Florida would not be the only state using a lottery to decide who gets to play in the market. Earlier in the year, Washington State held its first lottery to give out 334 licenses to business for recreational marijuana. And Brian Smith, spokesman for Washington State Liquor Control Board, says the response was overwhelming.

“We ended up holding 75 lotteries where the number of applicants exceeded the number of stores we had allotted. We had allotted 334 statewide but we had nearly 1200 people involved in the lottery," he said.

Around 75 percent of the people who applied for a marijuana license in Washington didn’t get one.

“I’m not going to weigh in right now on whether the lottery is the best way to do it, or if there’s another way to do it," says Florida Republican Senator Rob Bradley who co-sponsored the Charlotte’s web law, which is leading the state to develop the infrastructure to produce and distribute the non-euphoric marijuana mainly for children with severe seizures.

Bradley says the intent of the law is to get the substance into the hands of families as soon as possible. Lawmakers gave the Department of Health until January to get a system in place.

“I trust that the department will ensure whoever it is that is given a dispensary license is going to have the proper infrastructure in place to produce the product and get it delivered," Bradley says.

The Department of Health has scheduled another public hearing on the issue for September 5. While Florida is making plans for a non-euphoric strain of marijuana now, advocates worry the state is setting a high-bar for a larger medical marijuana expansion in the future, should a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana gain approval in November.