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Expanded medical marijuana regime bill passes House panel

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A bill to allow dying patients to use medical marijuana as a palliative treatment passed its first hurdle in the House Tuesday morning.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved House Bill  307 by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz and Democratic prime co-sponsor Rep. Katie Edwards by a vote of 9-4.

Panel chair Rep. Carlos Trujillo was among the four Republicans voting ‘No.’

The bill amends a state law passed in 2014 that enables terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs that have begun the Federal Food & Drug Administration approval process but have not yet completed it.

Gaetz said the federal government’s “errant” decision to continue to categorize marijuana as a drug with no legitimate medical uses necessitates the bill, which Edwards called a “regulated, tepid, cautious” approach to medical marijuana reform.

In something of a procedural surprise, a Democratic-sponsored substitute amendment from Rep. Randolph Bracy passed the panel, increasing the current regime’s five licensees to manufacture marijuana for production of low-THC cannabis-derived treatments up to 20, citing a “free-market” philosophy that attracted Republican panelists’ votes.

Responding to a question on the bill as amended, Gaetz joked the question would be better addressed to Bracy since he had rewritten it.

Lobbyist Louis Rotundo of the Florida Medical Cannabis Association called the measure an “excellent second step in moving this policy down the road.”

“We need to get this process over with,” said Rotundo, expressing the concern the amendment might hold up the already long-delayed process. “Let’s make sure we’re not delaying this process to select the winners – and yes, losers – in the next couple of weeks.”

Joining Trujillo in voting against the bill were state Reps. Dennis Baxley, Jay Fant and Gayle Harrell.

Harrell said medical marijuana is “more difficult to control” and “problematic” and that the state should see what happens with a regime of five initial licensees.

Harrell also cited a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that said there was no proven “efficacious use” of marijuana.

“Medical marijuana is not a lifesaving medication,” Harrell said, though the bill deals specifically with terminal patients, a fact pointed out by fellow conservative Rep. Charles Van Zant.

“This bill is not about saving anyone’s life,” said Van Zant.

“I can tell you cannabis does have a medicinal effect,” he said  nonetheless. “This makes an observable difference.”

Jeff Sharkey, co-founder of the Medical Marijuana Business Association, expressed his support for the bill during the hearing.

Sharkey’s lobbying partner Taylor Patrick Biehl, however, later noted his skepticism about the bill’s new provision of 20 licenses rather than five currently in statute.

“The amendment adds 20 additional licenses but eliminates the nursery requirements,” said Biehl, referring to the long list of standards prospective state marijuana growers must meet, including the ability to grow thousands of plants, secure surety bonds, and have an integrated supply chain from grow house to distribution.

“The question is, do you want to support folks who aren’t qualified nurseries?” Biehl said of the amended proposal.

Biehl also agreed with testimony from a representative of Florida Black Farmers, who said the group strongly believes African- American-run farms should be entitled to a minimum number of licenses granted by the state.

A 1999 federal lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman led to hundreds of millions of federal dollars going to settlements for black farmers after a court found the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them in granting farm loans and assistance.

Van Zant said he disagreed with mandating a minimum number of minority-owned cannabis growers in state law.

“If we want to move from five growers to 20, I’m OK with that. What I’m questioning is this business of, we have to include so many percentage of black farmers. Pretty soon it’s gonna be Indian farmers, and pretty soon it’s gonna be Chinese farmers, and somebody else,” said Van Zant. “Why not just have free enterprise?”

The bill moves next onto the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. Its Senate companion bill, SB 460 by Sen. Rob Bradley, will be heard Tuesday afternoon by the Health Policy Committee.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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