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State economists deliberate over fiscal impact of medical marijuana amendment

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

A group of economists representing the executive branch, both houses of the Legislature and various state agencies identified a handful of sticking points — but few if any definitive solutions =- when it comes to the possible economic impact of a 2016 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana.

Among the issues discussed by the Florida Impact Estimating Conference were the status of marijuana as an “agricultural product,” possible confusion in enforcement on behalf of police chiefs and state law enforcement, and the reliability of the “Colorado experience” as a model for Florida’s potential medical marijuana regime.

Amy Baker, head of the state’s Economic & Demographic Research division, led economists through a painstaking marathon of a meeting wherein budget estimators tried to draft a provisional statement on the economic impact of the use of marijuana as a treatment for debilitating medical conditions.

Indeterminacy and incomplete data were a key refrain among conferees, as no major top-line figures came out of the 3+ hour meeting.

They did, however, announce that the Department of Health would likely need some $3 million to operate such a regime during its first fiscal year. A state health official testified the cost would drop to an estimated $2.6 million for year two of the program.

Also discussed was the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s concern over whether the prescription of medical marijuana could introduce a “legal grey area” when stopping drivers or otherwise interacting with citizens.

FDLE indicated to Baker a possible — but so far unspecified — increase in costs when it comes to stops in which a patient has a license for medical marijuana, but it is unclear whether they are under the influence while operating a motor vehicle, for instance.

The group went through dozens of pages of a bullet-pointed version of a draft impact statement that dealt with such issues as the impact of federal law on a state program and whether marijuana is an “agricultural product” for tax purposes (on sales, likely yes, on production likely not, according to one exchange) down to the placement of commas and the members’ preferences on word choices like “however” versus “although,” which could have a significant impact on the way an eventual amendment is implemented by the executive branch.

Conferees also expressed their desire to have the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi address enforcement concerns to state police authorities.

Medical marijuana lobbyist Taylor Patrick Biehl of Capitol Alliance and the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida said further budgetary uncertainty stems from the unknown numbers of patients who will receive medical cannabis therapies under the state’s existing statutes, which allow low-THC medicines like Charlotte’s Webb.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz — who cosponsored the bill that created the state’s first medical marijuana regime, currently being implemented amid long delays — and state Sen. Rob Bradley introduced bills for 2016 to tweak state law to allow terminally ill patients access to cannabis-derived treatments with higher THC levels.

“Because such legislation would create a significantly larger patient base, more licenses — or even licenses with different requirements — could be needed,” said Biehl of the ongoing low-THC licensure process.

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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