TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants lawmakers to make smokable medical marijuana available in Florida, but the debut of the proposal Monday drew plenty of heat in a Senate committee.
Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes’s simple attempt to lift the state’s smoking ban was made more complicated by an amendment from Health Policy Chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, which opponents said would still bar most patients from obtaining flower marijuana.
Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he would’ve voted against his own bill with Harrell’s addition, if he served on the Health Policy panel. But he said more work lies ahead.
“We’ll let the committee’s will be played out in this bill,” Brandes said. “But the challenge I have is that my name’s on it. And I understand that patients right now would be better off with no bill, than with this bill.”
DeSantis recently said he was dropping the state’s appeal of a court ruling that found the ban on smokable medical marijuana unconstitutional, giving the Legislature until mid-March to restructure the law created after voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana.
Lawmakers in 2017 created a system in which marijuana oils, creams, vape pens and oral syringes are available – but not traditional, leaf marijuana. If smokable pot was put on the market, Harrell’s amendment would make it tough to get, critics said.
Harrell, who is close to the state’s medical community, said lawmakers should follow the Hippocratic Oath that guides doctors.
“We have some responsibility and to first do no harm,” Harrell said.
Harrell’s amendment allows smokable marijuana to be ordered for sick patients when a doctor certified by the state’s marijuana program declares it the “only” means that would prove beneficial.
While that standard was considered overly strict by critics, Harrell also required the patient then to find another doctor not participating in the state’s medical marijuana program who endorsed the first doctor’s conclusion.
Opponents said Harrell’s change — while not applying to terminally ill patients — is an obstacle and also at least doubles the upfront physician charges patients must pay before even getting an order for marijuana, which carries its own expense.
“If this does go through with this amendment, we’ll be back in circuit court across the street,” said Gary Stein, executive director of Clarity PAC, which supports pro-marijuana candidates and legislation.
The Health Policy Committee wrestled with Brandes’s proposal, once Harrell’s amendment was attached.
The bill initially failed to clear the committee, dying on a tie vote, only to be revived and continue to its next committee stop after Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, agreed to support it, for now.
The struggle in the Senate committee may be a bad sign for the prospect that lawmakers will be able to craft a new law governing smokable medical marijuana.
The House is home to more legislators who fought to ban smoking when the 2017 law was crafted and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, last week cautioned that he sees the effort as aimed at opening the door to recreational marijuana, which he opposes.
If DeSantis follows through with his promise to drop the state’s appeal by mid-March – and no new law is on the books – the smoking ban would be lifted. Whether that causes any chaos in Florida’s tightly regulated marijuana program, is an unknown.
After Monday’s rocky start, Brandes said he wasn’t concerned.
“We’re going to find a pathway forward, or we’re not going to have a bill, and that’s OK,” Brandes said.