Gov. Ron DeSantis still wants to eliminate Florida’s ban on smoking medical marijuana, but he’s walked back his opposition to a state system that resulted in what the new governor this month called a cannabis “cartel.”
Speaking to reporters following Tuesday’s state Cabinet meeting, DeSantis reiterated his insistence that the Legislature do away with the smoking prohibition, saying it “ran afoul” of a 2016 voter-approved constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The smoking ban was included in a sweeping 2017 law aimed at carrying out the amendment. In separate lawsuits, courts have struck down the prohibition on smoking and other portions of the law; the state is appealing those decisions.
When he delivered the smoking ultimatum to the Legislature at a Winter Park news conference this month, DeSantis also sounded off on other aspects of the law, including a “vertical integration” system that requires operators to grow, process and distribute cannabis products. Moving away from a vertical integration system could involve opening up the industry to companies that wouldn’t be responsible for all aspects of the cannabis business. For example, some companies could operate solely as dispensaries or as growers.
DeSantis, who took office Jan. 8, used the threat of dropping legal appeals to goad the Legislature into addressing issues that could include the vertical integration system and caps on the number of medical marijuana licenses.
“We need to have the people’s will represented in good law that is doing what they intended. I look at how some of this was created, where they (lawmakers) created a cartel, essentially,” DeSantis said on Jan. 17.
But, when asked Tuesday about legislation that would include a rewrite the 2017 statute, DeSantis softened his stance on the current system while reiterating his position on the smoking ban.
“Everyone knew what that amendment meant. I mean, it was very clear. There was an overwhelming support for it. So we’ve just got to enact a statute that is going to pass constitutional muster,” he said. “Some of the things that I criticized, the way they did the organization, as a free-market guy, that wasn’t necessarily something I liked. You probably can do a lot of different approaches and it’d still be constitutional.”
In a challenge filed by the Tampa-based firm Florigrown, whose owners include well-known strip-club owner Joe Redner, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last year struck down the 2017 law. Dodson found vertical integration and other components of the law conflicted with the constitutional amendment.
When questioned Tuesday about whether he felt as strongly about vertical integration as he did two weeks ago, DeSantis repeated that he did not know if the system is unconstitutional.
“It’s not that it’s strong, it’s just that I don’t know that the vertical is unconstitutional. I know that that’s been in litigation,” he said, adding, “we’ll look at it.”
The Florida Senate Health Policy Committee is slated Monday to take up a measure (SB 182), filed by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, to repeal the smoking ban.
But legislative leaders may not be keen on completely doing away with vertical integration, a move that could destabilize a growing and lucrative market in which one marijuana license recently sold for $63 million in cash.
A day after DeSantis called the Florida operators a “cartel,” the Florida House sought to join two lawsuits to defend the state’s licensing structure. One of the lawsuits, filed by Patients and Producers Alliance, has languished in court for more than six months.
In the requests to intervene in the cases, House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum argued that the 2017 statute was the Legislature’s attempt to balance the constitutional amendment with federal law, under which marijuana remains illegal.
“The Legislature took such conflicts into account when it enacted the tightly controlled regulatory scheme contained in” the 2017 law, Tanenbaum wrote in the Jan. 18 filings.
The House made similar arguments in an attempt to intervene in the Florigrown case, a request Dodson rejected. The House has asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn the judge’s decision.
In all of the cases, the House’s position was based more on principle --- a legislative branch of government being shut out of lawsuits in which courts found fault with the legislatively created laws --- than on the specifics of the policies involved.
The House remains open to revisiting the marijuana law, Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker José Oliva, said in a text message.
"In response to the Governor’s request, the Speaker expects the Florida House to review the regulations established in law, including caps and vertical integration. Our goal is to ensure access to medicinal marijuana while continuing to prohibit recreational use and prevent criminal diversion," Piccolo said.
Senate leaders also have said the caps on the number of licenses, as well as other components of the law, need to be reevaluated.
Although DeSantis has moderated his position toward vertical integration, the governor on Tuesday continued to express an interest in tweaking the 2017 law, which followed a 2014 law that allowed non-euphoric medical marijuana in Florida.
The initial law restricted applicants for marijuana licenses to nurseries that had operated continuously in Florida for at least 30 years. The 2017 law did away with that eligibility requirement, but state health regulators have yet to reopen the application process since the initial round of licensing in 2015, although they have issued additional licenses following court or administrative challenges.
The 30-year requirement “really restricted the ability of folks to be able to participate” in the medical-marijuana industry, DeSantis said Tuesday.
“So, I’m open to any ideas. The one thing I’m insisting on, though, is that they correct the mistake with the original bill with the smoking ban. That can be regulated. All this stuff can be regulated. But to foreclose that, when the people, I think most people assume that’s how this would be taken when they voted for it, so we definitely need to correct that,” he said.