Supporters critical of House medical marijuana proposal

- Pledging that it is only a start, a Florida House panel gave a thumbs-up Tuesday to a medical-marijuana proposal castigated by supporters of a constitutional amendment that legalized cannabis for a broad swath of patients with debilitating conditions.

The House Health Quality Subcommittee overwhelmingly approved the measure (HB 1397), sponsored by House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, with just one "no" vote after nearly three hours of public testimony.

"I believe this is a measured approach," Rodrigues, R-Estero said, "but I will caution you that it is not the final product."

The Rodrigues proposal would prohibit smoking of cannabis products, as well as edibles, and would ban all but terminally ill patients from using vaporizers to consume medical marijuana, one of the biggest objections to the bill raised by supporters of the constitutional amendment.

Known as Amendment 2, the ballot initiative was approved by more than 71 percent of Florida voters in November. It came after the Legislature in 2014 and 2016 passed far-more limited medical marijuana laws, allowing non-euphoric cannabis for some patients and full-strength marijuana for people with terminal illnesses.

The House bill would provide fewer additional licenses for purveyors of medical marijuana than a Senate plan would allow. Currently seven "dispensing organizations" have been approved by state health regulators.

Another point of contention in the House proposal would require health officials to grant medical marijuana licenses to applicants that lost out when vying to become one of the handful of operators authorized to grow, process and distribute non-euphoric cannabis products more than a year ago.

The proposal would require the Department of Health to grant another five licenses once the patient population reaches 200,000, and another three licenses for every additional 100,000 patients registered in a state database.

That's in contrast with a leading Senate proposal, which would require the state to issue five new licenses by the end of the year and up to 20 new licenses --- nearly quadruple the current number of seven --- by the time the patient registry reaches 500,000.

Rodrigues' legislation would also maintain a required three-month relationship between patients and doctors before health care providers could order the marijuana treatment, something critics say is detrimental.

Opponents of the constitutional amendment --- including Drug Free America and Save Our Society from Drugs --- are throwing their support behind the Rodrigues bill.

Calvina Fay, executive director of St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America, told the panel Tuesday she was pleased the proposal "has incorporated many of our recommendations."

But Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the political committee that backed Amendment 2, harshly criticized the House plan, saying it "was written for the less than 29 percent who voted 'no' rather than the over 71 percent who voted 'yes' "” on the amendment.

"This proposal undermines and contradicts the Constitution, the will of 71 percent of Floridians, and would impose significant, arbitrary barriers to patient access," Pollara said.

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