Jesse Hollett

FLEMING ISLAND – A bill filed last Thursday in the Florida Senate offers voters the closest picture on what full medical marijuana legalization will look like for the state and Clay County.

The 36-page bill introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) broadens the 2014 ‘Charlotte’s Web’ bill that legalized low-THC cannabis for terminal patients to provide new guidelines for the implementation of medical cannabis.

And although critics say the amendment lands much warmer to the accessibility voters soundly advocated for at the polls on November 8, 2016, they say the bill’s kinks remain glaring and concerning.

If approved, Senate Bill 406 would cement guidelines regarding caregiver registries, codify standards for medical marijuana treatment centers, require physicians to annually reassess patients and give the power of zoning dispensaries back to counties and municipalities.

Patients and municipal governments have been frozen in time waiting for a new regulatory structure to take place since Floridians – and residents of Clay County – overwhelmingly supported Amendment 2 to legalize medical marijuana for patients with debilitating illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, cancer and chronic pain.

Despite widespread support from the electorate, the bill is expected to face healthy scrutiny in the senate as language is refined and wrinkles smoothed in committee when the legislature convenes in March.

The Florida House has yet to propose a companion bill.

“We have a simple goal,” Bradley said. “And that is to faithfully implement Amendment 2 as it was overwhelmingly approved by the voters over in Clay County. So this is clearly something that people demand. They demand safe access to medical cannabis when they or their family members are suffering from debilitating conditions, so what this bill does is it gets us to a place where people can access medical marijuana.”

Five more Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers will open six months after the threshold of 250,000 patients is hit, with the overall goal being an additional 20 treatment centers by full implementation, roughly 500,000 patients.

The bill also removes roadblocks to patient registry, including a prior stipulation that patients have a three-month relationship with the recommending doctor prior to recommendation.

The bill, titled “Compassionate use of low-THC cannabis and marijuana” replaces the definition of medical cannabis as used in the former bill and refers back to the traditional meaning of marijuana as used in the Florida Constitution.

The change does not mean, however, that use of the schedule 1 drug outside of a medical use will carry any less of a penalty under law. Users who qualify under the proposed bill cannot use the medicine in public, planes, schools, jails, or in their place of work – unless stipulated otherwise by their employer. The bill also allows physicians to recommend proper marijuana “delivery devices” and creates penalties for recommendation of the medicine to unqualified patients.

Doctors must pay a $999 fee and complete a four-hour course to qualify to recommend the medicine. Currently, one percent of Florida physicians have registered to recommend the drug.

Physicians must also clearly label the recommended dosage, and dispensaries must clearly list their product’s strength on packaging, which must be childproof. As an additional safety measure, all transactions will be recorded to prevent doctor shopping.

Dispensaries will be prohibited from selling recreational delivery devices such as bongs and rolling papers.

Qualified caregivers must be at least 21 years old and, just like patients and physicians, register with the Office of Compassionate Use, the offshoot of the Florida Department of Health that oversees and enforces the regulatory structure of medical marijuana put forth by legislation.

Hillsborough County Sen. Dana Young (R-18) co-sponsored the bill. Young oversees the health policy and regulated industries committee.

Despite its marked improvements in the access approved by congress in 2014, leaders with the Florida Cannabis Coalition, a Tampa-based group of more than 800 entrepreneurs say the bill doesn’t go far enough to remove an apparent “oligarchy” in business opportunities that will arise from Amendment 2.

“If we put in a system that’s only advantageous for only a couple of entrepreneurs in the state, then it just so happens to end up that it’s not advantageous for the patients we have in the state,” said Carlos Hermida, executive vice president with the membership based group. “A lot of people think maybe a free market would allow for greedy people to enter the business but that’s not the case. It allows for patients in the state to actually get the medicine they deserve.”

He said competition would improve overall quality of the product, but Hermida describes the $5 million performance bond companies must post in order to begin the process of registering their business with the Office of Compassionate Use as too large of a barrier of entry for many of his members.

Hermida said it’s a shared consensus among Coalition members that a horizontal implementation structure would bring more benefit to the small business community than the current vertical implementation structure proposed would be.

Currently, business owners who hope to break into the estimated $1.4 billion medical marijuana industry must be able to run a sophisticated and security-conscious grow operation as well as run their own processing operation to turn products into useable forms other than its raw form as well as their own retail shops. The “start to finish” business model is written into the proposed law.

And although a provision that required grow houses to have been plant nurseries prior to registration has been removed in the revised text, Hermida said, the current regulations create an almost impenetrable regulatory model that favors only the wealthiest business owners who can create, run and operate all of those different businesses simultaneously.

“We believe in free markets, and we really believe in a freer market with the cannabis industry because it forces ourselves to live up to a higher standard,” Hermida said.

He added any updates to the 2014 bill’s regulations are a welcome, describing the bill as “a worst case scenario.” After three years, only seven business have been approved for operation in the state.

Bradley said the business model ensures marijuana, which is still illegal on a federal level, is produced in only the most sterile and highest quality environments.

“To make it available for medical use, there are safety and security reasons to protect the public and the businesses themselves, so it is necessary to have regulation,” Bradley said. “And so I think it’s appropriate to have a system whereby an individual business that has the ability to grow and sell the product is not following the rules that you can pull up that business by the root and have it stop doing business or if it’s a minor violation to fine the business and it be meaningful.”

Although estimates vary, a state report found – at full implementation with 450,000 active patients registered – the state stands to generate roughly $67 million a year in medical marijuana sales.