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Final challenge to Florida medical marijuana rule dismissed, licensing could start by summer

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

After months of legal wrangling and court battles, Florida is closer to allowing production of non-euphoric medical marijuana under the law known as “Charlotte’s Web” passed last year.

On Wednesday, a Tallahassee administrative judge rejected the last challenge to the state’s draft rules.

Judge David Watkins dismissed the claim by Baywood Nurseries of Apopka, which said the proposed rules on medical marijuana gives an unfair advantage to larger nurseries for the five medical marijuana growing licenses permitted by law.

With Watkin’s ruling, provided Baywood does not file an appeal, the state Department of Health can designate the rules as “final,” and begin issuing licenses to eligible growers as soon as this summer.

Supporters of the medical marijuana law, which has been in bureaucratic limbo for most of 2015, are celebrating the decision.

“It’s about time we all moved forward on this,” Weston medical marijuana advocate Seth Hyman told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s been too long, and the patients of Florida continue to suffer, which includes my little 9-year-old-daughter Rebecca.”

Florida will soon begin to create a statewide medical marijuana program, with five regional nurseries licensed to grow low-THC marijuana for extract as medicine for people suffering debilitating conditions such as epilepsy.

Although the law passed during the 2014 legislative session, the DOH effort to draft rules and regulations suffered a series of legal setbacks, delaying the program for nearly a year.

Last fall, Watkins approved one legal challenge, which sent the DOH back to the drawing board. Baywood’s challenge was to the agency’s second effort in drafting rules.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Health said the it remained “committed to ensuring safe and efficient access to this product for children with refractory epilepsy and patients with advanced cancer. We are moving swiftly to facilitate access to the product before the end of the year.”

After 20 days, the DOH can begin accepting applications for the five regional licenses: Southeast, Southwest, Central, Northwest, and Northeast Florida. There then will be a 21-day window for growers who meet certain qualifications: at least 30 years of continuous operation and capacity of at least 400,000 plants, as well as strict financial requirements. That condition could result in a single eligible grower in a region, and the Department issues the license immediately.

In the case of multiple candidates, the DOH has up to 60 days to select a winner.

After the projected 41-day waiting period before applications are accepted, which expires July 7, it’s off to the races for agribusiness companies looking to secure the go-ahead to manufacture cannabis for Charlotte’s Web production, lobbyist Taylor Patrick Biehl told FloridaPolitics.com.

Biehl, who co-founded the Medical Marijuana Business Association in 2014, said he expects some 30 firms to apply for the state’s five regional licenses. He welcomed the news that Baywood’s rules challenge had, at long last, been dismissed.

“The eligible patients deserve this medicine as quickly as possible,” said Biehl on Wednesday evening. “It’s a relief to know we are no longer at a standstill.”

Could the move auger more progress for advocates for medical cannabis liberalization?

“I’m hopeful our Legislature will work in the fall on a more robust measure to ensure all those suffering can find relief,” said Biehl.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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