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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.

House approves its spending plan, setting up budget negotiations

The House approved an $81.2 billion budget Thursday afternoon, sending the proposed fiscal 2017-18 spending plan to conference.

The House voted 89-26 to approve the budget proposal after about 45 minutes of debate, mostly from Democratic members raising concerns over spending for public school education, the environment and health care.

“I have to rise in opposition to this budget simply because of the fact that our priorities are out of whack,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat.

The House proposal, among other things, sets aside $200 million to create a “schools of hope” program that would shift students from failing schools to charter schools; includes $22.8 million for pay increases for corrections officers; includes $25 million for Visit Florida; and funds 46 new counter-terrorism positions.

The House proposal, however, doesn’t fund Enterprise Florida or a host of economic incentive programs associated with the public-private economic development agency, and does not include across the board pay raises for state employees. The Senate’s $85 billion proposal, which passed on a 39-0 vote Wednesday, includes both.

It also includes a partial cut to the office of State Attorney Aramis Ayala; while the budget the House approved Thursday strips Ayala’s office of $1.3 million.

“As far as this budget is concerned, I am rising in opposition for five distinct reasons. I oppose this budget because of the attacks we’ve decided that we wanted to take on business and our tourism, the attack on our children and education, the attacks on patients by cutting hospitals, the attacks on our seniors” said Rep. Amy Mercado, an Orlando Democrat. “But last, and definitely not least, I oppose this budget because of the political retribution that this body has decided on against State Attorney Ayala for executing and exercising her discretion in her office.”

Last month, Ayala announced she would no longer seek the death penalty in capital cases. Lawmakers acted swiftly, with Gov. Rick Scott reassigning 23 of her capital cases to State Attorney Brad King, while House and Senate budget writers proposed cuts.

State lawmakers will now head to conference over the budget. During a press conference last week, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo said those negotiations could begin as early as next week.

House, Senate bills to repeal PIP clear committees despite questions, differences

Florida lawmakers appear to be taking steps to repeal a state law requiring personal injury protection coverage, but differences remain between the House and Senate proposals.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 8-1 to approve a bill (SB 1766) that would repeal the Florida Motor Vehicle No-Fault Law, replacing the PIP mandate with a requirement that motorists carry bodily injury protection.

The Senate proposal, sponsored by Hillsborough County Republican Sen. Tom Lee, would create a medical payment, or MedPay, coverage mandate of $5,000. That system, according to a staff analysis, would provide “substantially similar coverage to current PIP medical benefits.”

That provision is not included in the House proposal (HB 1063) which cleared the House Commerce Committee on Thursday morning. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, also repeals the portion of the state law that requires motorists to obtain and maintain PIP coverage. Like Lee’s proposal, the House bill replaces the PIP mandate with a requirement to purchase bodily injury protection.

The bill bill increases the minimum bodily injury coverage limits to $25,000 of injuries to another person, and $50,000 of injuries for two or  more people.

The decision not to include MedPay in the House proposal had members in both chambers concerned. During discussions of the Senate bill, Sen. Rene Garcia asked Lee what commitment he has that the “MedPay component stays as part of the package.”

“I’m going to do my best to make sure hospitals and ER physicians aren’t adversely impacted,” said Lee, before saying it would likely be something that would have to be hammered out during negotiations.

But even then, Lee conceded there was no guarantee the MedPay component would end up in the final bill.

“At some point, we have to agree to disagree … and that’s why they make next year,” he said.

Garcia was the lone dissenting vote on the Senate proposal, citing the panel’s decision not to take up and adopt several amendments. Lee withdrew the amendments, citing concerns that amending the bill in the committee would slow down the process and decrease its chances of getting to the floor.

That could be a valid concern for those looking to reform the system. Lee’s bill received its first of three committee hearings on Thursday, with just three weeks until the end of the 2017 Legislative Session. The last day for regularly scheduled committee meetings is April 25.

The House bill cleared the Commerce Committee on a 22-5 vote, and is now headed to the floor. During the meeting, some members expressed concerns about the impact it could have on rates. However, several members said they were supporting the bill because they thought the current system needed to be changed.

“PIP as we know it is a dinosaur,” said Rep. Richard Stark, who said he was supporting the bill in committee but wasn’t prepared to commit to supporting it on the floor.  “The current system can’t prevail.”

Former congressman Robert Wexler joins Ballard Partners D.C. office

Ballard Partners is continuing to add to its D.C. roster, announcing Thursday former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler has joined the firm as a senior counselor.

“The idea is to develop an international practice,” Wexler told POLITICO. “My hope would be to focus on certain international relationships that I’ve worked on for decades and I’m confident are consistent with the best interests of American foreign policy.”

“Having someone of Robert Wexler’s caliber on our team is a tremendous win for the firm,” said Brian Ballard, the president of Ballard Partners, in a statement.

A South Florida Democrat, Wexler served in Congress from 1997 until 2010. Wexler, who served in the Florida Senate for six years before his time in Congress, raised eyebrows when he announced in 2009 that he planned to resign from the U.S. House to join the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, of which he is the president.

During his time in Congress, Wexler was an outspoken advocate for the bond between the U.S. and Israel. He made several trips as part of congressional delegations to the Middle East, meeting with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the Palestinian Authority.

He also served as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, a senior Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a member of the Middle East Subcommittee.

Wexler served as an advisor on Middle East and Israel issues during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and served on the president’s 2012 re-election steering committee.

“I myself enjoyed strong relationships with the Obama administration,” Wexler reminisced, “so I know what a benefit that can be.”

“Having worked with numerous governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East throughout his tenure as U.S. Congressman and advisor to President Barack Obama, Robert’s three decades of political experience will advance our work for international clients,” said Ballard. “We are pleased to welcome him to our office in the nation’s Capitol.”

In his role as senior counselor, Wexler is expected to “apply his foreign policy expertise while spearheading the firm’s growing international affairs practice,” according to the firm.

The announcement comes about a week after it was reported that Ballard Partners secured its first foreign government as a client. The Hill reported last week that the Dominican Republic signed a one-year contract with the firm worth about $900,000.

House votes down budget amendment calling for report on cost-effectiveness of Florida’s death penalty

The Florida House rebuffed an attempt to include proviso language in the budget for a report on the “imposition and execution of capital punishment” in Florida.

The amendment, put forward by Rep. Sharon Pritchett, called for the state to use money to fund a report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) looking at the death penalty.

The report, among other things, would have had to identify the actual fiscal cost associated with maintaining a capital punishment system; the average cost to the state and local government associated with the the execution of a single offender from indictment to execution; and address the “causes driving disparities in capital sentencing outcomes on the basis of demographic factors of the offender and the victim including, but not limited to, race, gender, sex, and geography.”

“It is good to see that the House engaged on the death penalty and recognized the constitutional importance of unanimous juries,” said Pritchett in her comments. “What is concerning, however, are the many other parts of the death penalty which may be subject to a constitutional challenge which we did not address in our previous reforms.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation last month requiring unanimous jury recommendations before the death penalty can be imposed.

 The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. The ruling was based on a case where a judge issued a death sentence after a 7-5 jury recommendation.

In 2016, the Legislature overhauled the state law to let the death penalty be imposed by a 10-2 jury vote. But in October, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions.

Pritchett’s amendment also comes as state lawmakers are calling for State Attorney Aramis Ayala to be suspended or removed from office after she said her office would no longer seek the death penalty. Scott reassigned 23 of her capital cases, and the House has proposed cutting her budget by $1.3 million.

Rep. Bill Hager, the chairman of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said the money was being moved “in respect to capital cases.” He defended the decision to cut the budget, saying he was “not familiar with a circumstance that would justify the transfer of the money.”

While the Senate initially proposed cutting the funding for Ayala’s office, members OK’d a compromise Wednesday. The amended Senate spending plan moves more than $569,000 into Ayala’s budget and restores nine of the 21 positions cut. It then sends $622,000 and six positions to the office of State Attorney Brad King, who has been reassigned Ayala’s capital cases.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo called Pritchett’s amendment an “unfriendly amendment from a very friendly lady.”

“We ought not be imposing the ultimate penalty in disparate ways,” said Rep. Sean Shaw during debate on the amendment. “The least we can do is study ways we can make it better and study ways to we can improve the system, no matter how you feel about it.”

The amendment failed on a 42-71 vote.

Pritchett’s amendment was the only floor amendment to the lower chamber’s proposed $81.2 billion spending plan. The chamber spent about 90 minutes discussing the bill, teeing it up for a vote later this week.

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