Mums the word at Department of Health while Charlotte’s Web questions bloom

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An open letter to John Armstrong, M.D., Florida’s surgeon general and secretary of health.

Dear John,

We can’t go on this way. We need to talk.  If not for the children, John, then for the “suffering families,” as politicians are apt to say.

It would help both of us do our jobs better.

That stunt you pulled Wednesday at the Drug Policy Council meeting was cute. Any basketball fan would appreciate how you and your communication staff executed a pick and roll; blocking four reporters from approaching you as you hustled out the door.

That was the first opportunity since Nov. 14 the Capitol press corps had to question you, Florida’s secretary of health, about developing rules for the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, after it invalidated the proposed regulations.  You waited 73 minutes after a 30-day appeal deadline to announce a rewrite of the rule, then replacing the first director of the Office of Compassionate Use, all with no explanation.

For 30 days, your communications staff repeated the same 23- word statement over and over, day after day.  You know, in light of all that, maybe cute is not the right word to describe what you did Wednesday.

Have you ever read John Dewey, John?

Dewey believed tension in our system is between citizens who want to be involved in setting public policy and those who find such individuals bothersome.  Gosh, I hate to be a bother, but the idea of self-government  motivates my work, however silly it may appear to you.

You are going to miss the Jan. 1, 2015, deadline to put a regulatory framework in place for the state’s medicinal marijuana industry.  It is unknown when marijuana oil will be available to treat seizure and other patients with debilitating diseases. No one knows what the Department of Health is thinking; you ran away from the people who strive to inform the public about how its government performs the people’s business.

John, listen to what state Sen. President Andy Gardiner had to say just an hour before you chose to ignore the media.

“The families deserve to know where we are. I mean we passed something; the legislative branch, the governor, everyone agreed where we wanted to go last year and it is unfortunate we have not seen it actually take effect,” said Gardiner.

“I think there are some legitimate questions about the rule-making process,” the Senate president added.

John, we just want to know what you are doing. It is how citizens in a democratic civil society hold government accountable.

You ought to pick up Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems.

No one is saying that the missed deadline or the lack of information and your rudeness is because lawmakers listened to parents about how Charlotte’s Web oil helped their sick children instead of to “experts” like you about the need for laboratory testing or the complexity of pharmaceuticals and Federal Drug Administration’s procedures.

We’re past that John; that battle has been fought, decided and recorded in the journal as SB 1030.

You’ll  have to forgive us if we think your behavior brings to mind Dewey’s observation.

“The notion that intelligence is a personal endowment or personal attainment is the great conceit of the intellectual class,” Dewey said in a lecture about public participation in policy making being a defining trait of a democratic civil society.

That’s exactly what we’re talking about now, John.

Through its Legislature, 19 million Floridians told you to do something. John, you mishandled the first attempt, even as scores of people advised you against what you insisted on doing. One question remains: Have you listened to the judge, lobbyists, lawyers and growers?

Are you rewriting the whole rule or just the parts flagged by the judge? Do you still consider a fleet of trucks as a distribution infrastructure? Have you revisited financial requirements?  Are you developing measurable criteria?  What are you doing, if anything, sir?

Or, as parents would like to know, where’s the oil we told you to get to market?  Yeah, they know you have scheduled a workshop, but you’re supposed to be awarding licenses by now. Maybe it’s time for one of those boss-employee conversations, where the employee is asked: “Remind me again why I’m paying you.”

When I realized I would have to knock down and walk over a member of your communication staff to get to you before you exited the Drug Policy Council meeting room, I asked myself what would a John Dewey do with a John Armstrong?

There I stood, along with three other reporters, lost in a Deweyian delusion that we live in a civil society, where government officials work for the people. I had faith that the public participates in making policy and the press is among the tools the people and officials have to build that Shining City on the hill.

After all, it is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights.

Well, you are right John. The First Amendment also means you don’t have to talk to me. The neat thing about free speech is that one cannot compel an American to speak.

However, our tradition of a civil society and open government presents problems if you don’t overcome your media shyness and start telling us what it is you are doing.

When you hold a required public meeting, you must provide time for public comment. The Capitol press corps’ tradition and etiquette is to not question public officials when the public is given time to talk.

But John, I’m a member of a public, too. I am a Florida taxpayer, a voting citizen simply trying to make a living. If I have to get in line with other citizens to ask you or whoever it is that day you are hiding behind to clarify what you are proposing and how it accomplishes what the people said they wanted done, then I will do that.

I will drop the role of reporter, sign in on the public comment roster — in line with lobbyists, parents, and nurserymen — and play the role of a citizen participating in creating policy.

Here’s the problem; at this point, the story arc changes. It no longer will be about Charlotte’s Web, but about an accompanying storyline about the civic obligation to hold government accountable, with me playing the role of Jimmy Stewart.

It is then I will leave the room and resume the role of writer; telling a story of citizens confronting arrogant elitist bureaucrats. (Maybe I’ll play Al Pacino, someone closer to my character type.)

One more pick and roll, and I fall in line, John.