Florida legislators are ready to vote on measures that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana, boosting chances of approval before a mid-March deadline set by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The House and Senate moved closer to an agreement on the issue, after the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday eliminated a proposal that would have restricted medical marijuana dispensaries to selling pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes with filters.
After making the change, the committee approved the House version of the smokable-marijuana bill (HB 7015). But unlike the Senate’s bill, the House version would not allow dispensaries to sell other whole-flower products.
The Senate proposal (SB 182) would require medical marijuana operators to sell at least one type of pre-rolled, filterless cigarette and allow them to sell other whole-flower products. It also would let patients buy equipment to smoke cannabis products from other retail outlets, such as smoke shops.
The House plan would ban children from smoking, while the Senate measure would allow minors to smoke medical marijuana if the patients get a second opinion from a pediatrician.
Both the House and Senate plans are now headed to the chamber floors for votes after the annual legislative session starts March 5.
Shortly after he was sworn into office last month, DeSantis gave lawmakers until March 15 to address the smoking issue. If they don’t act, the Republican governor threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that said the ban violates a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.
Despite their differences, leaders in both chambers remained confident they would finalize a deal in time to meet the governor’s deadline.
“At each committee stop, I believe the two chambers have moved closer. I think by the time we put the bills on the floor, we will have them aligned,” bill sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who has shepherded the House’s marijuana-related legislation in recent years, told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.
Rodrigues said he expects the full House to vote on the proposal by the end of the first week of session.
Whether patients under age 18 should be allowed to smoke remains the biggest sticking point for the House, according to Rodrigues.
“We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana,” he said.
The Senate’s biggest issue, meanwhile, is allowing patients to access whole-flower products other than pre-rolled joints.
Prior to the House committee’s 28-1 vote Thursday in favor of the proposal, Rodrigues cautioned “this bill is not the final version.”
But Rodrigues’ revamped measure --- which also includes $1.5 million for a research consortium --- garnered widespread support from advocates as well as House members who either believed the original plan did not go far enough or who objected to allowing patients to smoke.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said he was backing the bill although it fails to address patients’ concerns about affordability.
“It lifts the ban on smoking medical cannabis,” Smith said, and positions the state “to be able to collect information on research” that eventually will help doctors “make a more informed decision.”
Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who is a dermatologist, pointed out that marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug under federal law and that a paucity of research exists related to smoking cannabis as a treatment.
“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” Massullo said.
By allowing smoking as a route of administration, “we’re basically letting the tail wag the dog,” he warned.
But, said Massullo, “It’s solving problems, and that’s what we need to do.”
Also Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee received an update on the state’s medical marijuana operations.
Twelve of the state’s 14 medical marijuana operators are up and running, Office of Medical Marijuana Use Interim Director Courtney Coppola told the panel. The operators dispensed more than 1.5 billion milligrams of products in 2018, and the state currently has more than 185,000 patients who’ve qualified for the treatment, she said.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, grilled Coppola about Florida license holders who have “flipped” licenses to out-of-state buyers for between $50 million and $80 million.
“Is there is a minimum amount of plants you must grow, or do you just have to have a facility and a kiosk in a mall?” said Brandes, the sponsor of the Senate’s smoking-ban repeal.
While Florida law requires operators to begin dispensing medical marijuana products within a certain period of time after they’ve received licenses, there’s nothing that requires them to sell a minimum amount of product in order to keep their licenses, Coppola acknowledged.
“There is no minimum requirement for how much product you dispense,” she said.
Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also questioned whether the state could charge fees to the operators to fund research.
The companies pay an annual registration fee of about $60,000, Coppola said. The Department of Health had proposed charging a “supplemental fee” of $174,844 to each of the providers but dropped the plan after one of the companies filed a legal challenge.
Bradley noted that medical marijuana is a “lucrative” business for operators.
“The license holders, they have challenged a rule because they thought they were going to have to pay too high of a fee?” he asked.
“The supplemental fee was challenged,” Coppola said.
“OK. That’s interesting to know,” Bradley said.