In 2016, the very Floridians who cannot agree on presidents or governors overwhelmingly agreed on one thing: that medical cannabis should be accessible. 72 percent of the vote passed Constitutional Amendment 2, legalizing medical marijuana for patients living with debilitating diseases and with approval by licensed state physicians. Two years later, the amendment’s broad legalization of medical marijuana is a far a cry from what Florida constituents thought they were voting for.
Local Bans on Medical Cannabis
Despite a supermajority of voters indicating their desire for medical marijuana, multiple cities in Florida have banned pot businesses from starting or expanding. Pembroke Pines, Boca Raton, and Coral Springs are just three examples of large cities that have banned cannabis retail. Others are reticent to open more than just two or three medical cannabis stores within their limits. The result is that three dispensaries have opened in Palm Beach, three in Broward, and five in Miami-Dade, counties that are home to 1.5 million, 1.9 million, and 2.8 million residents, respectively.
Even if bans weren’t a problem, the law implementing the amendment chokes industry growth in the sunshine state.
Florida’s legislature passed the Medical Use of Marijuana Act on June 9, 2017 in order to implement Amendment 2. The law defines the medical conditions that would qualify with a physician’s recommendation, places a cap on the number of licenses that can be issued to Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (the cannabis vendors), requires Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers to be vertically integrated, and bans smokable cannabis. While the law’s list of qualifying conditions is inclusive of most cannabis-treatable illnesses, its other rules make it difficult for patients to actually access the medicine they have the legal right to receive.
State Law Implementing Medical Marijuana is Ruled Unconstitutional
The law requires that Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers be vertically integrated. This means that each vendor is responsible for producing, processing, and distributing the product, a behemoth of a system for a new company to adopt. This makes competition even more difficult for a nascent industry with legal problems and limits on the kind of product it can sell.
“There’s a race,” explained George Scorsis, CEO of Liberty Health Sciences, one of only 14 Medical Marijuana Treatment Center licensed in Florida. “But there are also two points of hindrances. One, capital, and two, who really has the knowledge and know-how.”
At least one potential dispensary owner in the state has taken issue with the limits the law places on how many retailers can receive a license and how they are allowed to conduct their business.
Strip club owner Joe Redner filed suit when his license application for Florigrown, his Tampa-based cannabis company, was rejected. In October 2018, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson sided with Florigrown, ruling that the law was unconstitutional and ordering the Department of Health to register Florigrown and other medical marijuana companies.
In response to the ruling, Florida’s House of Representatives attempted to intervene but was blocked once again by Judge Dodson. The House’s desire to prevent the judge’s ruling from being implemented may be tied to the financial contributions current license holders have made to House leaders.
“What’s really disturbing is that instead of embracing the clear dictates of this court’s orders, they (House leaders) still resist any acknowledgement of the plain language of Amendment 2. They are still trying to protect the oligopoly that they’ve created, with this white-collar cartel,” said Florigrown’s lawyer Luke Lirot.
The “No Smoke is a Joke” Lawsuit
Redner’s lawsuit is not the only medical marijuana case putting up a fight against the current law’s rules. John Morgan, one of the most influential leaders of the legalization campaign, has filed suit against the state’s ban on smoking medical cannabis.
Morgan filed suit on behalf of patients like Cathy Jordan of Manatee County. Jordan has Lou Gehrig’s disease and explained that the legal consumption methods in Florida are not helpful to her. Edibles “cause terrible, terrible muscle pain in [her] stomach,” and vaping triggers her gag reflex. Smoking, on the other hand, dries up her excess saliva, increases her appetite, relaxes her muscles, and “makes [her] life a lot more bearable.”
After the trial, Morgan criticized the state for forcing patients like Jordan to break the law in order to survive.
“Today we saw a woman, literally fighting for her life, hoping to be able to smoke marijuana to be able to dry up her saliva so she doesn’t choke and die on her own spit,” Morgan said. “The state of Florida, who is here to protect lives, is in fact trying to take her life—and so many like her, and so many who will be like her.”
Legislators opposed to smokable cannabis worry that allowing that consumption method will bring the state closer to legal recreational weed. They also cite health concerns and argue that vaping is a safer alternative. Morgan doesn’t buy their health claims, though, explaining that if they really wanted to keep Floridians safe from the harmful effects of smoking, they would have imposed hefty taxes on tobacco.
Until the law changes, patients can only purchase topicals, pills, tinctures, and oils from licensed vendors.
DeSantis Isn’t Interested in Continuing the Fight
Redner’s and Morgan’s lawsuits were appealed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. Starting January 8, however, there’s a new governor in town.
The Republican governor-elect Ron DeSantis is conservative and personally opposed to cannabis legalization. However, when Lt. Gov-elect Jeanette Nuñez was asked if DeSantis planned to extend Scott’s antagonistic approach, she said that he “has said he’s not interested in continuing that fight.”
“I think he has a different perspective than Gov. Scott,” Nuñez said. “I think he wants the will of the voters to be implemented.”
It isn’t entirely clear which of the lawsuits Nuñez was referring to and how exactly the incoming governor plans to implement the amendment.
“The governor-elect is considering a variety of options on this matter, along with a number of other important issues, and will be discussing these further as we move forward with our transition and administration,” said DeSantis’ transition spokesman Dave Vasquez in an email to the Orlando Sentinel.