Stance On Drugs Softening But Old Policies Die Hard
It’s happening slowly, but the Legislature’s posture toward illicit drugs is shifting. But even as lawmakers revisit long-standing attitudes, supporters face significant hurdles in their effort to reinvent Florida policy.
For a long time, the drug policy officials at the local, state, and federal level have pursued has been simple: just say no. But at a glacial or perhaps tectonic pace, lawmakers are beginning to reconsider their positions.
“I’ve seen this child not have seizures,” Dennis Deckerhoff says, “and I called people and I said you know what I’m driving my son to school and he’s not having seizures. I’m driving my son home and he’s not having seizures.”
“I can’t say that today.”
Deckerhoff’s son suffers from intractable epilepsy. Stories like his have been perhaps the strongest motivation behind people like Sen. Rob Bradley’s (R-Fleming Island) efforts to loosen medical marijuana policy in the state.
“We’re focused on getting relief to people that we have met personally and care deeply about and have listened to their stories,” Bradley says.
He’s one of a handful of Republicans who have taken the lead on reworking Florida’s marijuana policy. Two years ago he helped pass the compassionate use act, and ever since he’s been trying to fix the measure’s shortcomings. While the Department of Health has floundered through a rulemaking process to implement the law and a series of administrative challenges, lawmakers have wondered about what they could have done differently.
“Two years ago we made a mistake, and it’s one of my greatest regrets in the Legislature,” Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens says.
The senator believes restrictions based on number of nurseries and years in operation have been the reason for delays.
“We probably had the votes to change that on the floor, I agreed to do a voice vote instead of going on the board and a regret that to this day,” he says. “Because creating five monopolies in the state of Florida is not the right way to deal with this medicine.”
And it’s not just Democrats.
“We must, for the sake of competition and to keep the prices down expand the number of providers that are able to access the market,” Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) says.
“I’ve got to believe the Department of Health can certainly regulate—I know one thing, if they can’t let me know and we’ll get the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to send some of their folks—or Department of Agriculture. We can make some wiggle room in their budgets to get you more inspectors.”
Hays and Clemens are pointing to the problem of horizontal integration—too few businesses operating in one phase of the market. But Ron Watson, lobbyist for a company called AltMed, explains there’s a problem with vertical integration, too—one business controlling production, distribution and sale.
“Let me give you an example,” Watson says. “This would be kind of like your pharmacy or your drug store—the only products that would be available at that store would be by a manufacturer. So you would have a Merck, or a Pfizer, or a AstraZeneca pharmacy, and the only products that’s going to be available in that pharmacy are the ones that the single source provider makes.”
That arrangement is exactly why alcohol is regulated as a three tier system—separating producers, distributors and retailers from one another.
Bradley’s effort now doesn’t touch compassionate use. Instead it’s rooted in a different provision—known as the Right To Try Act. It’s a measure allowing terminal patients access to drugs that haven’t completed FDA approval.
Bradley and his House co-sponsor Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar) have repeatedly contended their decision is an effort not to disturb the nascent, existing framework for medical cannabis. But disturbing that framework is exactly what Clemens, Hays and others are hoping to do. Bradley remains hesitant but he’s leaving the door open just a crack
“If between now and when it perhaps makes it to the floor there is some language that we can all collectively as a Legislature agree upon to do what you’ve just described then I’m all ears and very much open to that,” Bradley says.
Of course, the wheels of change move slowly. Wednesday morning after years of falling on deaf ears in the House, a needle exchange pilot program for Miami-Dade County was slated for consideration in the House Judiciary Committee. Supporters say the program could reduce the incidence of diseases like HIV, but critics worry it encourages drug use.
The Senate version is one step away from final passage—it made it that far last year and gained approval in the Senate the year before. But in the end, the House panel decided not to take the measure up. The committee meets again next week, but it hasn’t published which bills will be heard.