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Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster

Appropriations Committee sends its medical marijuana bill to Senate floor

A Senate panel cleared its version of the medical marijuana implementing bill, sending it to the floor and setting House and Senate up for negotiations over the two different proposals in the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill (SB 406) that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment. Sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, the bill is generally favored by medical marijuana advocates; but several expressed concerns about access during the final committee stop Tuesday.

“We have a huge supply deficit in the state,” said Dennis Deckerhoff, whose son uses low-THC cannabis.

Deckerhoff said one of the dispensaries in the state has run out of the product his son uses, forcing him to go to a second dispensary, which has since changed the formula.

“Access means getting the medicine you need, not the medicine the dispensary is producing,” said Deckerhoff, who urged lawmakers not to pass the bill.

Bradley’s proposal, among other things, grandfathers in existing dispensing organizations as medical marijuana treatment centers, brings five additional medical marijuana treatment centers online by Oct. 3, and requires the Department of Health to license four more medical marijuana treatment centers after each time 75,000 patients register with the state’s compassionate use registry.

The bill also removes the three-month waiting period and limits the number of retail facilities from which growers can dispense medical marijuana.

The vote comes one day after the House Health and Human Services Committee approved its version of an implementing bill. The House proposal (HB 1397), which is considered more restrictive, includes the 90-day wait period; bans pregnant women from using medical marijuana, even if their doctor recommends it, and prohibits vaping and edibles.

Bradley said the Senate is in “active negotiations with our friends in the House” over the proposal. The House version is also headed to the floor.

House medical marijuana implementing bill headed to the floor

A House panel advanced an amended version of the lower chamber’s medical marijuana implementing bill, preparing the bill for a vote by the full House in the coming weeks.

But with two weeks left until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session, the House and Senate continue to be at odds when it comes to implementing the 2016 constitutional medical marijuana amendment.

While Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the sponsor of House bill (HB 1397), had hoped to present a reconciliation bill during the House Health and Human Services Committee Meeting, the Estero Republican said he and Sen. Rob Bradley “have not gotten there yet.”

“We have had talks,” said Rodrigues. “I’m confident we’ll get there.”

But changes accepted by the House Health & Human Services Committee appear to move the bill away from the Senate position. The committee approved a committee substitute Monday that, among other things, prohibits pregnant women from using medical marijuana, and prohibits physicians from initiating or maintaining a physician-patient relationship through telemedicine.

“Since HB 1397 was filed, I have been critical of this proposal and have been hopeful it will evolve,” said Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care. “Understanding that negotiations are ongoing, (the proposed changes) all have the effect of moving further from the Senate bill.”

The newly amended bill does establish the Coalition for Medical Marijuana Research and Education at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Institute, something which is included in the Senate proposal.

The panel, however, rejected a proposed amendment by Rep. Bobby DuBose, which would have, among other things, removed the requirement that 150,000 qualified patients must register with the compassionate use registry before a license is issued to a black farmer.

Rodrigues said the issue of licenses was currently being negotiated with the Senate, and said the amendment was unfriendly.

Opponents continued to criticize the House bill, saying it didn’t follow the spirit of the constitutional amendment, which passed with 71 percent of the vote in November. Several members of the public raised concerns about access, with some saying the bill “picks winners and losers.”

“We need to stop pretending this issue is about hippies and stoners,” said Stephani Scruggs, whose husband suffered a seizure during the Senate meeting on its version of the implementing bill last week.

Some committee members agreed, with Democrats saying they did not think Rodrigues’ bill followed the spirit of the constitutional amendment.

“What we have here is an incredible maze of bureaucracy. It’s a maze of entanglement,” said Rep. Daisy Baez. “This implementing bill does not do the service that 71 percent, or 6 million, people voted for.”

Rodrigues said he continues to work with the Senate on a compromise bill, and hopes to have one soon. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to discuss the Senate proposal (SB 406) during its meeting Tuesday.

“This is a bill that is a work in progress,” he said.

Florida’s unemployment rate dips to 4.8% in March

Florida’s unemployment rate is dropping.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity announced Friday the unemployment rate dipped to 4.8 percent in March, down from 5 percent one month earlier. That’s slightly lower than March 2016, when the state reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

“This is an exciting day — jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Gov. Rick Scott, who announced the March jobs numbers at Pelican Wire in Naples. “When I ran back in 2010, I ran on a campaign of 700,000 jobs over seven years. Now we’re at 6 years and 3 months and 1.35 million jobs. That’s great. This state is on a roll. We have job openings in our state, our labor force is growing.”

On Friday, Scott boasted the state has added more than 60,000 private sector jobs in the first quarter of 2017. That brings the total number of private sector jobs added since December 2010 more than 1.3 million, according to the Governor’s Office.

According to the Department of Economic Opportunity, the education and health services industry saw the most job gains in March. The industry, according to the agency, added 44,300 jobs, or a 3.6 percent increase.

The professional and business services industry added 43,500 jobs in March, followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 40,3000 jobs, and the construction industries with 36,500 jobs. The information industry was the only industry losing jobs, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Orlando area led the state in job creation, adding 42,700 new private-sector jobs in March, according to the Governor’s Office. The unemployment rate for the region was 3.9 percent.

The leisure and hospitality industry led the pack in Orlando, adding 12,000 new jobs; followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 8,200 new jobs, and professional and business services with 7,1200 new jobs.

The Tampa Bay region added nearly 42,000 new jobs and had an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent. The region was first among the metro areas in job demand, with 44,544 job openings.

Monroe County had the state’s lowest unemployment rate at 2.8 percent, while Hendry County had the highest unemployment rate at 6.4 percent.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball calls Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial race a ‘toss-up’ in initial ratings

With so much uncertainty about who is in or out of the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race, it’s not surprising that at least one political seer has deemed Florida too-close-to-call.

Initial 2018 gubernatorial ratings released Thursday by Sabato’s Crystal Ball ranked Florida as one of 10 states considered a “toss-up” going into the 2018 election cycle. The ratings found more than half of the 38 gubernatorial races on the ballot next year either start in “competitive toss-up or leans Republican/Democratic categories.”

The report noted Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been “gearing up for a gubernatorial run for years” and is seen as the favorite on the Republican side to succeed Gov. Rick Scott. But with several other Republicans considering a run, authors Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik report it is “hard to say just how clear his path to the nomination will be.”

Putnam has been touring the state meeting with local Republican and business group to talk about his vision for the future, and has been building up his campaign coffers in advance of his expected bid. State records show Florida Grown, the political committee expected to fuel his gubernatorial bid, has raised more than $10.5 million since 2015, and had more than $7.7 million cash on hand at the end of March.

The Bartow Republican is scheduled to have a barbecue in his hometown on May 10, just five days after the expected end of the annual 2017 Legislative Session. The event, according to the Tampa Bay Times, will be held at the Old Polk County Courthouse.

But Putnam could face competition from Sen. Jack Latvala and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both of whom are believed to be considering a 2018 bid.

Latvala, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, raised more than $246,000 for his political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, in the days leading up to the start of the 2017 Legislative Session. That one-week fundraising haul in March came after one of his best fundraising months to date, when his committee raised nearly $1.1 million in February.

The Democratic side isn’t any easier to predict, according to the team at Sabato’s. While the authors write it might “come down to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and ex-Rep. Gwen Graham, both of who could be considered rising stars in the party,” the team does note there are “some wealthy wild cards who could self-fund, such as 2010 Senate candidate Jeff Greene, businessman Chris King, and well-known attorney John Morgan.”

Gillum and King are the only Democrats who have filed to run, but Graham is widely expected to jump in the race soon, as is Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who could fall into the self-fund category.

State records show Levine pumped $2 million of his own money into his political committee, All About Florida, in March. Levine has spent the last few weeks touring the state meeting with community members.

Both Gillum and King have been staffing up. Gillum announced this week that Scott Arceneaux, the former head of the Florida Democratic Party, would be joining his campaign as chief strategist; while King unveiled a host of key hires, including Raymond Paultre as his director of strategic engagement and Stephanie McClung as his finance director.

Gillum announced earlier this month he had raised $765,000 — spread between his official campaign and his political committee Forward Florida — since the start of 2017, most of which was raised since March 1. Meanwhile, state records show King brought in nearly $1.2 million for his official campaign in March. That sum included a $1 million contribution King made to his own campaign.

But a crowded field could be an issue for Democrats hoping to turn Florida blue, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The rankings noted that although Democrats came close to winning in 2010 and 2014, they “haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Florida since 1994 … so an extremely crowded field in an expensive state with a late primary could be problematic for them.”

Senate panel OK’s amendment to limit number of retail locations allowed to dispense medical marijuana

A medical marijuana bill advanced through a key Senate panel Tuesday, picking up an amendment that would limit the number of retail locations allowed to dispense medical marijuana.

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee approved a bill (SB 406) by Sen. Rob Bradley to implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

The proposal, among other things, calls on the Department of Health to issue five new licenses —at least one of which must be a black farmer —  by Oct. 3; gives patients who are not residents of Florida, but have a qualifying condition and can lawfully obtain medical marijuana in their home state, access to medical marijuana while in Florida; and allows edible products, so long as they aren’t designed to be attractive to children.

The committee backed an amendment by Sen. Frank Artiles that would limit the number of locations license holders can dispense medical marijuana. According to the amendment, licensed growers “may not dispense marijuana from more than 3 retail facilities.” The amendment does not limit facilities that only dispense “low-THC cannabis and sell marijuana delivery devices to qualified patients.”

Artiles said he filed the amendment because he wanted to make sure Florida doesn’t end up like California or Colorado, but also acknowledged three retail locations per license would likely not be the final number.

The amendment received the backing of Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care. Pollara argued without the cap, the current license holders could corner the market, creating a monopoly.

“It will be like the cable companies,” said Pollara.

Growers opposed the amendment, saying they were concerned the impact it could have on patient access. Bradley said he was “agnostic” on the proposal, but would have “a growing objection if the number stayed at three.”

“This is the beginning, not the end,” said Artiles.

The proposal passed with little input from members or the public, but not because of lack of interest. A medical emergency interrupted the hearing, leading members to take a short informal recess and forcing a quick vote before the meeting’s scheduled 6 p.m. end time.

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The House Appropriations Committee passed its implementing bill earlier Tuesday.

House Appropriations Committee clears medical marijuana bill, despite concerns from advocates

A House panel cleared the lower chamber’s medical marijuana implementing bill, despite continued concerns from advocates who said the measure doesn’t go far enough.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill (HB 1397) by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment. The proposal now heads to the Health & Human Services Committee, the final stop before a vote of the full House.

The bill, among other things, calls for a 90-day waiting period before a physician can recommend medical marijuana; prohibits smoking, vaping and edibles; and calls for new licenses to be issued after 150,000 qualified patients register with the state’s compassionate use registry.

While generally viewed as more restrictive than the Senate proposal (SB 406), Rodrigues said he has been in negotiations with the Senate about what the final proposal could look like.

“This bill is a work in progress,” said the Estero Republican. “Our goal is to produce a bill that honors the spirit of the constitutional amendment.”

Approved in November with the backing of 71 percent of Floridians, the constitutional amendment allows Floridians with debilitating medical conditions, determined by licensed physicians, to use medical marijuana. While the amendment went into effect Jan. 3, state lawmakers and the Florida Department of Health have been tasked with implementing the law.

Advocates have expressed concern that the House proposal doesn’t honor the spirit of the amendment, and point to restrictions — like the 90-day waiting period and smoking prohibition — as examples to back up their claims.

“These sorts of extreme restrictions on access will simply serve to drive patients to the black market,” said Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care. “This proposal ignores the Florida Constitution and the will of 71 percent of Floridians. And in addition to that clear, direct conflict with the people’s will, the results of the policies contained within HB 1397 will instead feed the criminal activity that it’s author has said this bill was written to obviate.”

While several members commended Rodrigues for his work, they said they couldn’t vote for the proposal at this time because of the restrictions in place.

“This has probably become the most complicated subject bill this session,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz. “I think it’s more complicated than gaming or anything else, because we have to get it right. What we do here … it has tremendous ramifications if we get it wrong.”

Moskowitz called the 90-day waiting period “completely ridiculous,” and said there was no other medication or product available to alleviate pain where someone would be required to wait 90 days to get.

Rep. Katie Edwards, who co-sponsored the legislation that created the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, also called for lawmakers to remove the 90-day waiting period, saying it was a bad idea from the “word go.”

Rodrigues said the waiting period already exists under the 2014 compassionate use law, which was used as a foundation to build the implementing bill.

“I’m tired of apologizing, members,” said Edwards, after telling a story about having to explain to a relative why their child had to wait 90 days to get medical marijuana. “Don’t make the same mistake I did on some of these issues and have to tell a relative ‘I’m sorry.’”

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee is set to take up its implementing bill during its meeting at 4 p.m.

Amendment could limit the number of retail locations allowed to dispense medical marijuana

A proposed amendment to the Senate’s medical marijuana implementing could limit the number of retail facilities allowed to dispense medical marijuana.

Sen. Frank Artiles filed an amendment  to the Senate proposal (SB 406) Monday that appears to place a cap on the number of retail facilities from which medical marijuana treatment centers can dispense medical marijuana.

According to the amendment, medical marijuana treatment centers “may not dispense marijuana from more than 3 retail facilities.” The amendment does not limit “MMTC facilities that only dispense low-THC cannabis and sell marijuana delivery devices to qualified patients.”

The amendment could impact existing license holders, including ones that have already opened retail locations across the state.

There are currently seven dispensing organizations — similar to a medical marijuana treatment centers under the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment — authorized to cultivate, process and dispense medical marijuana in Florida.  But a bill set to be discussed during the Senate’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting could open the door to new licenses as soon as October.

Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, the state would be required to add five additional medical marijuana treatment centers — at least of which must be a black farmer — by Oct. 3, 2017.

It then calls on the state to register four more medical marijuana treatment centers within “six months after each instance of the registration of 75,000 qualifying patients with the compassionate use registry” if a sufficient number of applicants meet the registration requirements.

A second amendment by Artiles would require the state to issue of the four remaining licenses to a “veteran business enterprise.” That amendment also calls on the state to “grant preferential and bonus scoring criteria for applicants that, at the time of the initial application, are veteran business enterprises … which meet the requirements to be awarded and registered as an MMTC.”

Senate records show Sen. Bobby Powell has filed an amendment meant to encourage minority participation in the in MMTC operations and subcontracting.

Bradley’s bill is scheduled to be discussed during the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting at 4 p.m.

The House Appropriations Committee is set to discuss its version of the medical marijuana implementing bill (HB 1397) during its meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Rick Scott announces resignation of his chief inspector general

Melinda Miguel, the state’s chief inspector general, is stepping down.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Miguel, who has served as the governor’s chief inspector general since 2011, has resigned to pursue opportunities in the private sector. Her last day, according to the Governor’s Office, is today.

“Over the last 27 years, I have been trusted with the mantle to stand and sere our great State of Florida and have been inspired and moved by your leadership and courageous determination to make it better,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Now more than ever, I appreciate your stance for liberty, freedom and justice and you fighting for Florida’s families.”

Miguel’s career with the state dates back to 1989, when she served as a supervisor for player accounting services at the Florida Lottery. She worked her way up the ladder at the Lottery, spending four years as a supervisor, before becoming an auditor and investigator with the agency’s inspector general’s office.

Over the years, she served stints at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Department of Elder Affairs, Department of Education, and the Attorney General’s Office. In 2006, she was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Council of State Agency Inspectors General, a role she served in for about a year.

“Melinda has done a great job serving our state as Inspector General, and I’m extremely grateful for her commitment to ensuring government remains accountable to Florida taxpayers,” said Scott in a statement.

Scott announced Eric Miller, who currently serves as the inspector general at the Agency for Health Care Administration, will serve as the Governor’s Chief Inspector General.

Miller has served in his current position since September 2011. Prior to joining AHCA, he served as manager of corporate compliance at Citizens Property insurance.

“Eric has dedicated his career to serving our state for more than twenty years. As Inspector General at AHCA, Eric has firsthand experience in fighting fraud and ensuring tax dollars are used efficiently and effectively,” said Scott in a statement. “I am confident he will continue his great work as Chief Inspector General in my office.”

Miller’s first day as chief inspector general is April 21.

Bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana likely dead for this year

A Senate proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was temporarily postponed, effectively putting an end to any hopes that legislators would act on the legislation this year.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, the Lake Worth Democrat sponsoring the bill (SB 1662), asked that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee temporarily postponed the measure after a 15-minute discussion Monday.

While Clemens said he was thankful that Sen. Randolph Bracy, the committee’s chairman, decided to hear the bill, he said he knew that there was “virtually zero chance” of it passing the Legislature this year.

A similar proposal (HB 1403) by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith has not received a hearing in the House. If Clemens’ bill had passed the committee, it still would have needed to clear two more committees — the Judiciary and Rules committees — before it made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I’m encouraged we’re able to have this discussion,” said Clemens. “We are in Week 7 right now, and this is the first committee this bill was to be heard in. It has not gotten a hearing in the House, meaning that there is virtually zero chance of this bill passing this year.”

The bill would have made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis — described as a “personal use quantity — would be a civil violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

Under the proposal, a person over the age of 18 who knowingly possesses an ounce of marijuana or less would be assessed a civil violation of no more than $100. Juveniles would be ordered to complete up to 15 hours of community service.

Sens. Dennis Baxley and Rob Bradley both expressed concerned about the proposal.

“When I see a bill like this, I understand where Sen. Clemens is coming from, but I’m not prepared to go as far as this bill goes,” said Bradley. “I appreciate the discussion.”

71% of Floridians think conversion therapy for minors should be illegal, bills to prohibit it stalled in Legislature

A recent poll shows an overwhelming number of Floridians believe conversion therapy should be illegal, leading LGBT advocates to renew their call for a statewide ban.

According to a recent Orlando Political Observer-Gravis Marketing poll, 71 percent of Florida voters think conversion therapy should be illegal for minors in Florida. The poll found 18 percent of respondents said they were uncertain, while 11 percent said they thought conversion therapy should be legal.

The survey of 1,243 registered voters was conducted April 4 through April 10. It was conducted using interactive voice responses and online panels of cell phone users, and has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

“Conversion therapy is fraudulent, dangerous, and inflicts immeasurable harm on its victims,” said Hannah Willard, public policy director for Equality Florida, in a statement. “We now have confirmation of what we’ve known along: Floridians overwhelmingly support equal protection for LGBTQ people and do not support any efforts to target or harm gay and transgender youth.”

Conversion therapy is a controversial technique designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states have passed laws, and lawmakers in about 20 more have introduced legislation, to prevent mental health professionals from providing conversion therapy to minors.

Earlier this month, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican signed legislation to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors. Under the New Mexico law, the prohibition applies to licensed physicians, nurses, psychologists and other health practitioners who apply conversion therapy to people under 18. It changes provisions of a consumer protection law and outlines disciplinary measures that can be taken by state licensing boards.

That is similar to legislation filed by Sen. Jeff Clemens and Rep. David Richardson this year.  Their proposals (SB 578 and HB 273) would also prohibit health practitioners from practicing or performing conversion therapy on people under 18.

Under their proposal, licensed professionals who performs or attempts to perform conversion therapy on a minor is considered to be engaging “in unprofessional conduct and is subject to disciplinary proceedings by the department and the appropriate regulatory board.”

Clemens bill was referred to four committees; while Richardson’s was referred to three. Neither bill has received a committee hearing.

According to Equality Florida, 12 Florida cities — including Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami, and Key West — have all banned conversion therapy.

“We applaud the twelve Florida cities who have enacted local bans on conversion therapy and call on more municipalities to outlaw this dangerous and deceptive practice that puts LGBTQ youth at risk,” said Willard.

 __The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permissions.

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