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Pot Proponents Cross Their Fingers Ahead Of Court Challenges

The outlook is mixed for medical marijuana in Florida.
Scott Beale via Flickr

It’s been tough sledding for Florida’s medical marijuana system.  The Department of Health awarded five long-awaited licenses last year, but now it faces more than twice that many challenges.  Agency officials updated senators on the program’s rollout this week.

For Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), the delay in implementing medical marijuana legislation has been excruciating.

“What I would like to do, however, is explore every opportunity to end these endless delays and get a quick solution that could get us to market as soon as possible,” Bradley says.

The Fleming Island Republican was the driving force behind 2014’s Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act in the Senate.  Last session he pushed a measure to clarify and expedite the process of awarding licenses.  That bill died on the Senate floor. 

Now with five nurseries selected, Bradley called on health department officials to give an account of the program before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.  Office of Compassionate Use Director Christian Bax explains there’s still a ways to go.

“The department is targeting most likely September,” Bax says. “Although I would add the caveat of it’s possible a dispensing organization can move quicker, it’s also possible that all of the five have some deficiency that needs to be cured and that could delay it somewhat.”

The rosiest outlook comes from Alpha-Surterra, licensee for the southwest region. 

“As you know as we’ve mentioned, once the Department of Health grants us authorization to cultivate we have 210 business days to provide product for the patients of Florida,” Susan Driscoll of Alpha-Surterra says.  “The good news is we are focusing to beat that deadline and have products available in June of this year.”

But Bax explains a string of administrative challenges could still derail the system.  There’s a total of twelve challenges in all—a thirteenth recently withdrew. 

Alpha’s license in the southwest has drawn four such complaints alone.  Perkins Nursery questions whether it has actually been in operation for thirty years.  Three Boys Farm complains it wasn’t based in the region at the time of its application.  Plants of Ruskin and Tropiflora, meanwhile, wants to burn the whole thing down—contending the entire licensing decision system is suspect. 

The root of the problem is in the bill’s drafting.  Lawmakers tightly restricted eligibility for licenses: five total nurseries each in continuous operation for thirty years.  But it’s mum on how to select among applicants.  And while those requirements are black and white, when it comes to their purpose and effect it’s a bit less clear. 

“I thought that the idea of five regions was that the state would be divided up—and the distribution, and the growing, and each company would have one region,” Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) says.  “I thought, I understood her to just say that they were going to have stores in Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville—so what’s the use of having regions?”

After a year and a half of tedious effort constructing a system that complies with the law, backers are proceeding gingerly—careful not upset the rickety framework they’ve built.  It’s why Bax only demurred at Bradley’s repeated offers of legislative help.  It’s also why Bradley’s medical marijuana legislation this year avoids compassionate use altogether.  Instead he’s expanding last year’s right to try act giving terminal patients access to the drug.  And on that score at least Bradley is optimistic.

He expects it to hit the Senate floor within the first month of session.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.