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Florida politics toys with Cannabis

Judge Dodson – lost his patience

As a top Florida judge slated the Sunshine State’s administrators for dragging their feet over Marijuana reform,  politicians are trading promises about future legislation.

the Judge gave Florida Health officials until 5 p.m. Oct. 19 to begin registering medical marijuana treatment centers.  Its already taken two years since the vote in 2016, when more than 71 percent of Florida voters backed a measure that broadly legalized medical marijuana. In a state infamous for razor-thin electoral margins, it was about as clear an endorsement of an issue as you’re likely to find.

In a harshly worded order last month, scolding state officials for treating the Constitution “like a recommendation,” the Tallahassee judge gave the Department of Health two weeks to begin registering new medical-marijuana operators or risk being found in contempt.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, siding with Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, rebuked Gov. Rick Scott, the Scott administration and the Republican-dominated Legislature for failing to properly carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

Florigrown, owned in part by Tampa strip-club operator Joe Redner, filed the legal challenge after the Department of Health denied its application for a medical marijuana license.

Meanwhile high-profile Democrats, such as gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, hope calls for expanding cannabis rights further, and highlighting Republican opposition to weed, will give them an edge in tight races.

Political observers say that this issue alone won’t likely be enough to persuade most undecided voters either way. But it could help weigh down Gillum’s GOP opponent Ron DeSantis and other would-be Republican cabinet members running this year.

“Historically, there are few voters who are single-issue voters. But, in a state where races are only won by 1 percent — repeatedly — you really can’t ignore anybody’s issue,” said Susan MacManus, a former University of South Florida professor and longtime political analyst. “Obviously, the Democrats are tapping into that concern about the problems with medicinal marijuana.”

 

Support for medical marijuana in Florida is nearly 74 percent, according to a recent poll from St. Pete Polls. It found that support for recreational marijuana legalization in Florida was a more modest 49 percent, though others this year have placed support higher than 60 percent in the Sunshine State.

Two years after the passage of Amendment 2, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is fighting in court to block medical marijuana patients’ right to ingest cannabis through smoking. And state regulators still have not finished drafting some rules associated with legalization, most notably those needed before the production and sale of edibles may commence.

Some would-be cannabis providers also claim that Florida is being too stingy in granting licenses to operate in the state’s fast-growing and increasingly lucrative marijuana industry.

Gillum, who is polling even with (or edging higher than) Republican Ron DeSantis, favors legalizing recreational marijuana for adults in Florida — similar to laws in states like Colorado, according to his campaign. Gillum estimates that legalization would provide the state $1 billion in new revenue.

Passing laws is one thing – getting them enacted is quite another.

Judge Dodson’s Friday order followed an August decision in which the judge found that the medical marijuana 2017 law  is unconstitutional because, among other things, it caps the number of highly sought-after medical marijuana licenses health officials can issue.

Although he found the law unconstitutional two months ago, Dodson delayed a ruling on Florigrown’s motion for a temporary injunction to give health officials time to comply with his original findings.

Dodson ruled verbally from the bench Wednesday in favor of Florigrown, but Friday’s written order — which the judge alone penned — severely reprimanded state health officials for failing to follow his instructions.

When he issued the Aug. 2 order, Dodson “was hopeful” that the health department “would take action to cure the serious constitutional problems” he identified in the state law, the judge wrote in Friday’s 6-page order.

Instead, a lawyer for the state agency this week “essentially conceded … that for the purpose of this case there have been no significant changes in the department’s regulations” or its handling of Florigrown’s application, according to Dodson.

“In other words, the court order was ignored by defendants,” he wrote.

State health officials are in an “unfamiliar situation” because the Legislature has the authority to implement most constitutional amendments. But the medical marijuana amendment specifically gave the responsibility to the Department of Health “to ensure the availability and safe use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients,” Dodson noted.

The law passed by the Legislature during a 2017 special session provided “guidance” to the state agency, but it “was in several ways significantly inconsistent with the Constitution, as pointed out in the August 2 order,” the judge wrote.

In August, Dodson found the 2017 law unconstitutional because it requires marijuana operators licensed by the state to cultivate, process, and dispense medical marijuana — something known as “vertical integration” — as opposed to breaking the activities into separate parts for licensure.

And the judge ruled that the law improperly restricted who could get licenses. The law ordered health officials to grant licenses to operators who were already up and running in Florida or who were involved in litigation as of Jan. 1, 2017. The law also required a license for a black farmer who meets certain conditions and set aside a preference for applicants with certain ties to the citrus industry.

“Thus, we have the department with specific duties placed on it by the Constitution, and the Legislature telling them incorrectly what to do, by statute. Nevertheless, the Constitution has very specific details in it. And the Constitution is the law of the land. The Constitution prevails over the statute,” he wrote.

Dodson’s order for a temporary injunction blocks the health department from moving forward with the application process laid out in the 2017 law and gives the state until 5 p.m. Oct. 19 to begin registering medical marijuana treatment centers “in accordance with the plain language of the Medical Marijuana Amendment.”

The judge also ordered the state to register Florigrown by 5 p.m. Oct. 19, unless the health department “can clearly demonstrate to this court that such registration would result in unsafe use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients.”

Dodson also emphasized to the defendants — the health department, the agency’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use and various state health officials — “that this is a court order,” before concluding with a rare warning: “Willful violation of the court order may result in sanctions, which could include a finding of contempt of court.”

“If we scale up Colorado’s model to the Sunshine State, the potential new revenue is extraordinary,” Gillum said in a written statement. “We live in a state of more than 20 million people, and there are no other states near us that have legalized recreational marijuana.”

His campaign would not say if, as governor, Gillum would push the Legislature to legalize or throw his support behind a constitutional amendment vote in 2020 or beyond.

DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to interview requests about this issue.

But he has said he plans to “implement the will of the voters” who legalized medical marijuana and that he opposes legalizing recreational marijuana because doing so would make it “harder on parents.”

Members of Gillum’s would-be Cabinet also strongly in favor of marijuana rights. Sean Shaw, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general; and Nikki Fried, the Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner (and former marijuana lobbyist) have called for the full legalization of marijuana for adults.

Fried said the state’s resistance to fully implementing the medical marijuana law shows disregard for voters.

“It is a pure example of what is wrong with Tallahassee,” Fried said. “Something like the medical marijuana amendment that was passed by 71 percent of our Floridians has not been properly implemented. And it’s continuously showing that Tallahassee and the Republicans have not been listening to the will of the people.”

Their GOP opponents, Ashley Moody and state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, oppose allowing medical marijuana users to consume the drug in smokable form. Caldwell backed an early version of medical marijuana legalization in 2014 that made non-euphoric strains available to patients. He opposed legalizing it by means of a constitutional amendment but says he supports it generally.

Though he questions the value of smoking the drug: “We’re talking about medical use of cannabis, and I support whatever a legitimate doctor gives me as a reasonable method of delivering medicine,” Caldwell said. “I’ve not had a single doctor tell me that you consume medicine via smoking, whether you’re talking about cannabis or whether you’re talking about opiods.”

Orlando attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the successful medical marijuana campaign in 2016 and now backs recreational marijuana legalization, predicted in a tweet last week that Republican opposition to smokable cannabis is a losing position.

“Baby boomers need #MedicalMarijuana the most. And these two have done all they can to thwart the WILL of the voter,” Morgan wrote.

Whether this is true or not, cannabis does have a growing constituency.

As of the end of September, Florida counted more than 131,000 qualified medical marijuana patients — a number that has grown by the thousands every month since Amendment 2 was implemented.

Bryan Coon, a pro-legalization activist supporting Gillum, spent hours standing along Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers, holding a sign saying “Legalize Weed! Vote Andrew Gillum!!”

He said was doing so to support those he knows who use medical marijuana and have struggled in the past to get easy access to the drug.

“I just feel that a lot of young people don’t know who Gillum is,” Coon said. “I also think a lot of Republicans don’t like how Amendment 2 has been implemented.”

There is some evidence to back that up.

St. Pete Polls, which surveyed 1,755 likely Florida voters this summer found just under 30 percent support how Rick Scott has implemented medical marijuana laws. Nearly 45 percent said they disapproved.

The poll also found that nearly 66 percent believe that medical marijuana patients should be allowed to smoke cannabis.

“This is definitely an issue the Democrats are using to try to get the independents to come over to their side,” said Matt Florell, president of the polling service, a division of St. Petersburg-based corporate phone system services company, Fextel, Inc. “But medical marijuana is not really a make-or-break issue with the Republican or Democratic side. I really think that it’s something that goes after the middle.”

Florell noted that 77 percent of independents favor medical marijuana rights, higher than that of Republicans. But, noting the strong pro-medical marijuana stance held by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R–Fort Walton Beach, a staunch supporter of President Trump, he said support for cannabis rights may be more bipartisan than meets the eye.

But, for now, Floridians don’t seem to consider it a top priority.

University of North Florida poll conducted earlier this year found that the top campaign issues among Floridians were education, the economy and health care. Last month, a Quinnipiac poll found that voters care most about immigration, health care, gun policy and the environment.

Michael Binder, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, said he doubts the issue will be more than a minor point — if it comes up at all — in the upcoming Gillum/DeSantis debates.

“DeSantis will be spending a lot of time bringing up the costs of Gillum’s proposals and hammering him for being a socialist – marijuana legalization doesn’t really fit into that narrative,” Binder said. “Gillum is focusing on health care, the environment and DeSantis’ ties to Trump.”

The issue of cannabis legalization has been an even less-obvious subject in the neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race between Gov. Scott and Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. But, even here, there have been subtle nods to changing public moods on marijuana.

Nelson, a longtime opponent of legalizing marijuana co-sponsored legislation last month that would overturn the federal ban on Veterans Administration doctors from prescribing medical marijuana.

When asked about other proposed legislation that would end the federal ban on cannabis use, Nelson said through his spokeswoman that he only supports “medical marijuana prescribed by a physician.”

Gov. Scott’s campaign declined to say how he might vote on federal decriminalization if he’s elected to the Senate.

“Governor Scott will review any legislation he would have a vote on as a member of the U.S. Senate,” said his spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone.

Either way, the issue is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Aside from the calls to fully legalize in Florida, four more states — Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota and Utah — are set to vote next month on proposals to legalize medical or recreational marijuana.

 

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