Simmering frustration with the Florida Legislature's inability to agree on a framework for the state's constitutional amendment expanding medical marijuana could build if it's not addressed at this week's special session.
Gov. Rick Scott called the session that begins Wednesday because of an ongoing feud over the state budget. Although observers expected medical marijuana to be added to the agenda, lawmakers continue to disagree over key elements: how many retail dispensaries a treatment center could open and whether cannabis would be subject to sales tax.
"I'm surprised it is not on the agenda. I think it will eventually get addressed because people will be angry if they don't," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care, an organization that advocates for medical marijuana.
The amendment, which was passed by 71 percent of voters in November, expands legal use beyond the limited prescriptions for low-strength marijuana allowed under a 2014 law. It also would expand the eligible ailments beyond the current list of cancer, epilepsy and chronic muscle spasms to include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and similar conditions.
When the bill implementing the amendment fell apart late in session, the Senate wanted to limit each treatment center to 15 locations; the House wanted no caps and no sales tax.
Those issues mean little to the 14,700 patients on the state registry like Michael Bowen, who has epilepsy. The Pensacola native can receive low-THC cannabis under legislation passed in 2014 but would like to be able to use higher-strength medical marijuana and see more product variety than he has now.
"Right now, they are playing with people's lives," he said.
Patients and caregivers say the proposed rules remain too restrictive, including not allowing smoking. Training for doctors would drop from eight hours to two but they would still have to stringently document patients' conditions before prescribing marijuana.
If nothing gets resolved this week, lawmakers could return for another special session. If legislators don't agree on a marijuana plan, it would be up to the Department of Health to set the rules.
"Clearly, there are discussions behind the scenes and offers being made. The Legislature recognizes that their constituents would like them to find a resolution," said Taylor Patrick Biehl, who help runs the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida.
Biehl said it would be easier for the Legislature to establish the framework of rules instead of the Department of Health, which went through several rounds of litigation when trying to determine who would be licensed to produce and distribute pot.
Department rules are likely to be even more restrictive based on its draft proposal in February. Patients would likely have a 90-day waiting period to get cannabis after seeing a certified physician. That could mean prolonged legal challenges, especially because it would prohibit smoking.
What everyone does agree about is that time is running out to get a structure in place for an amendment, which requires new laws to be in place by July 3 and enacted by October. A recent state revenue impact study projects that by 2022 there will be 472,000 medical cannabis patients and $542 million in sales.
"There's that saying about having something done is better than perfect. People are counting on something getting done," said John Morgan, the architect behind getting the amendment on the ballot and passed.