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House Health Quality Subcommittee approves medical marijuana implementing bill

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A House panel approved legislation Tuesday that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment, despite concerns from some advocates the proposal doesn’t honor the spirit of the amendment.

The House Health Quality Subcommittee voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill (HB 1397) that would implement the 2016 constitutional amendment. Sponsored by House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the bill would, among other things, maintain the current vertically integrated regulatory structure, only allow terminally ill patients to use vaporizers or consume cannabis products, and would make medical marijuana exempt from sales tax.

While the committee strongly supported the proposal, several members expressed reservations about some of the provisions outlined in the bill, including one that essentially calls for a three-month waiting period before a physician can recommend medical marijuana.

Rodrigues defended the inclusion of the language, saying it was part of low-THC medical marijuana bill passed passed in 2014. The state put in the requirement in response to the pill mill crisis in hopes it would shut down any “cash for prescription” operations.

He said he decided to keep the same 90-day waiting period in the implementing bill because the belief is that by making it easier for doctors to register and get certified to order medical marijuana for a qualified patient, more physicians across the state are likely to do so.

In that scenario, Rodrigues said it is likely that patients would be seeing a doctor they already have an established relationship with. But there is also a chance that physicians specializing in medical marijuana will emerge, and in that case Rodrigues said having the waiting period could help ward off bad actors.

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

The health department began the process of creating rules in January, and has until July to put them in place. The Senate Health Policy Committee held a workshop on implementing the constitutional amendment last week, and Sen. Dana Young, the committee chairwoman, said it could be a few weeks before the panel votes on a measure. Five implementing bills have been filed in the Senate.

Opponents to the constitutional amendment lined up in support of Rodrigues’ bill on Tuesday, calling it a way to implement voters will, while balancing the public health and safety concerns.

“We believe this bill includes language that address our concerns and the concerns of our community,” said Amy Ronshausen, the deputy director of Save Our Society from Drugs. “We believe this bill clearly puts the public health and safety before the interests of big marijuana.”

But Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care, said the fact that so many one-time opponents have come out in support of Rodrigues’ bill should show it isn’t “representative of the will of the people.”

Pollara, who helped craft the constitutional amendment, commended Rodrigues for his thoughtful approach to the legislation, but said “unfortunately the result was he got the policy wrong.” He pointed to several provisions, including the 90-day waiting period, that he said created onerous barriers to patient access.

Committee members acknowledged the bill was not perfect, but said they appreciated Rodrigues’ willingness to work with those involved to hammer out the details going forward.

“We have a responsibility as lawmakers to make sure we do this right,” said Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat. “I’m excited about the possibilities.”

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