Image of Andy Gardiner speaking about marijuana legalization in Florida
Florida lawmakers are again rolling out legislation in support of medicinal and recreational marijuana use, and decriminalization of the drug that has gained a lot of attention in the past year.
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Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg filed medical marijuana legislation this week that would offer marijuana to patients suffering from 14 different ailments.
 
The proposal lays out a regulatory structure for patients, doctors, growers and retail stores, and allows patients marijuana if their doctor approves an appropriate need.
 
Physician-qualified patients would include those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, ALS, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
 
Also included would be medical conditions that produce chronic symptoms of wasting, pain, nausea, seizures or muscle spasms. The proposal requires the Department of Health to start issuing cultivation licenses by March 1, 2016 and retail licenses by July of the same year.
 
The strict regulatory framework lays out licensing fees. It also takes into account local governments adverse to retail marijuana shops and directs county commissions to determine the “number and location of any retail facilities that may be located within the county.”
 
The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which stood firmly against Amendment 2, has not yet taken a stance on the Republican-sponsored measure, a spokeswoman said, but the group will be discussing it early this week during an annual legislative planning meeting.
 
Brandes’ legislation (SB 528) comes at a time when the backers of a widely-voted-for but rejected constitutional amendment are working to get the question of whether to approve medical marijuana on the 2016 ballot and the Department of Health is still wading through the regulatory process of non–euphoric marijuana laws passed last year.
 
The agency has not yet developed regulations for the Charlotte’s Web marijuana strain, largely because of the challenges to the requirement that only five nurseries in the state grow and develop the marijuana that will become medicine.
 
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said Wednesday he is hearing some frustration with the implementation of Charlotte’s Web, but Brandes’ expansive bill “has obviously started some dialogue.”
 
“The issue will become are we trying to address how slow the (Department of Health) has moved or are we going the next step, which is potential expansion of Charlotte’s Web, when we haven’t even implemented the existing program?” Gardiner said.
 
Almost 58 percent of Floridians voted in favor of the medical marijuana amendment in November, just under the 60 percent needed for approval.
 
United for Care, the group sponsoring the amendment, has already picked up more than 6,000 signatures since the newest measure was filed Jan. 9, said director Ben Pollara.
 
Pollara is supportive of Brandes’ legislation and has been working closely with his office on developing a law to provide relief to thousands of sick Floridians.
 
“Our mission is to pass the medical marijuana law in Florida that helps the thousands of patients who are suffering in our state,” Pollara said. “The quicker we can do that the better.”
 
The fact that legislation was filed by a high-ranking Republican is even more encouraging, Pollara said.
 
“The Legislature is going to have to step up as Sen. Brandes did and pass a good law sooner rather than later and not have to wait to implement something in 2017,” he said.
 
Florida Democrats have named marijuana reform as a top priority this year.
 
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner said Wednesday it was encouraging to see Republicans, some of whom strongly opposed marijuana legislation last year, shifting on the issue.
 
“Someone on that side finally got the message that Floridians are with Democrats in supporting pain relief that doesn’t come with the terrible side effects of addiction that come with other legal methods,” Joyner said.
 
Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay said he is in the process of crafting a recreational use and decriminalization bill that would resemble one he and Rep. Randolph Bracy filed last year. It died in committee before being heard on the floor.
 
The legislation would impose a tax on recreational marijuana sales and allow its use for those 21 and older.
 
Bullard said the large support from Florida voters of the medical marijuana ballot initiative in November is cause enough to bring back a piece he feels is meaningful legislation.
 
The amendment’s resurgence “sets the stage for a discussion on the topic,” Bullard said.
 
“We want to make sure recreational use and, if nothing else decriminalization of possession, are topics of the discussion as well,” he said.
 
Bullard noted that a higher percentage of voters cast ballots for the marijuana amendment than for re-elected Gov. Rick Scott.
 
“I think it’s important for the Legislature to take notice of that,” he said.
 
Health care lobbyist Ron Watson said with the interest of voters in marijuana reform and the focus and acknowledgment of the medicinal value last year by the Legislature, it is hard to predict how this session will go.
 
Last year “was a toe-in-the-water approach,” said Watson who is an advocate for the low-THC law, but “will the legislature have the appetite to go further? I don’t know the answer to that.”
 
What Watson calls “glitch bills” are in the works for tweaking unexpected holes in the Charlotte’s Web legislation, like not giving labs legal immunity to possess and test marijuana products.
 
He said it is important to separate the two discussions on medicinal and recreational use, since marijuana has become a mainstream topic politically and around the kitchen table.
 
The turning point?
 
“Bringing a tie to the discussion instead of tie-dye, I think changed it,” Watson said, “but we need to fix what we have now. I just want to get the medicine to the people as quickly and safely as we can now.”
 
Karl Etters ~ Tallahassee Democrat ~ January 31, 2015
 
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