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House passes medical marijuana implementing bill, sends to Senate

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The House overwhelming approved its version of a medical marijuana implementing bill, setting the bill up for final negotiations with the Senate later this week.

The House voted 105-9 to approve a bill (HB 1397) that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

“Understanding the level of pain and the level of need patients have … there is no way I would block this type of legislation,” said Rep. Amy Mercado, who voted against the bill in its first committee stop. “I stand here not at 100 percent, but because it will help patients.”

Sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the House amended the bill Tuesday to, among other things, allow pregnant women to use low-THC cannabis, and allow the use of low-THC cannabis in public.

The amended version of the bill also quickens the pace by which the state issues licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers.

Under the amendment approved Tuesday, current license holders would be grandfathered in and receive a license to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana, as well as low-THC cannabis. The amendment also calls on the department to license any applicants denied a license, if the applicant was awarded “a license pursuant to an administrative or legal challenge.”

It then calls on the Department of Health to issue 10 more licenses “as soon as practicable, but no later than July 1, 2018.” Under the bill, one of the applicants in each region must be the “next-highest scoring applicant after the applicant or applicants that were awarded a license for that region; was not a litigant in an administrative challenge on or after March 31; and is not licensed in another region.” It also needs to issue a license to a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.

 The department is then required to issue four additional licenses within six months after the registration of 100,000 active, qualified patients in compassionate use registry.

Rodrigues said “95 percent” of the changes adopted as part of the amendment have been negotiated with the Senate. The House bill does not include caps on the number of retail locations growers can have, something the Senate bill includes.

“We do not believe 21 storefronts would provide necessary access,” said Rodrigues about the Senate’s proposal to allow growers to have three retail locations from which they can dispense medical marijuana. There are currently seven licensed growers in Florida.

The bill prohibits patients from smoking medical marijuana, although it allows edibles and vaping. But those limitations, among other things, is what prompted Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith to vote against the bill.

“I believe there are hundreds of thousands of people who are using smokeable cannabis to help mitigate their pain,” said Smith. “Who are we to tell legitimate patients they can’t smoke?”

In a statement Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care, said the House bill puts “profits over patient access.”

“The Senate should make significant amendments before sending what is currently a fatally flawed bill back to the House,” he said.

Floridians won’t have to wait too long to see what the Senate does on the bill. With just a few days left until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session, the Senate is begin discussions of its version of the bill (SB 406) on Wednesday.

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