Florida's Medical Weed Industry Is Still Screwing Over Patients

By Francisco Alvarado for Vice

"We hope the board of health can promulgate regulations that are patient focused and provides them with program that benefits as many patients as possible." - Beth Collins

Despite voters demanding a better medical pot program, special interests are standing in the way.

Seventy-one percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment expanding medical weed in America's favorite cultural wasteland last fall, but state legislators have once again managed to screw over sick people trying to use pot to alleviate pain.

Late Friday evening, negotiations between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron collapsed as both men quibbled over how many dispensaries licensed growers would be allowed to open. As a result, lawmakers couldn't pass a medical pot bill to cover more people suffering chronic pain before the legislative session ended Monday.

Advocates like Beth Collins, government relations senior director for Americans for Safe Access, blame legislators for putting the interests of medical marijuana companies ahead of patients, resulting in a draconian bill that discouraged a free and open marketplace, and banned smoking as a means of ingestion. "We feel the legislature let patients down by not passing a comprehensive program that they clearly voted for," Collins told me.

In a mass email to supporters on May 5, the Florida Cannabis Action Network said lawmakers had created a regulatory framework driven by special interests. "The House and Senate both gave lip service to working in the interests of patients while taking tens of thousands of dollars from the "Have's" (those who have a license) and the "Have Not's" (those who want a license)," the email said. "For now, if you know someone who uses cannabis then be sure to encourage them to use caution."

Now the rule-making falls on the Florida Department of Health, which created the state's current system that only licenses seven companies to manufacture and distribute a low-intensity form of marijuana for people with epilepsy. (A carveout for the terminally ill was put in place last year, separately from the amendment.) It's a system medical marijuana advocates claim stifles the competition that would force legal commercial growers to offer the highest quality weed for the best price.

"It's like buying cable," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care, a lead medical marijuana advocacy group. "You have Uverse, Xfinity or Direct TV. They all offer basically the same stuff at basically the same prices with the same level of poor customer service. I think patients would like to see a much more diverse marketplace."

Collins said the health department should heed the will of Florida voters. "We hope the board of health can promulgate regulations that are patient focused and provides them with program that benefits as many patients as possible," she said.
VICE reached out to spokespeople for the seven approved providers in the state for their perspective, but none responded before deadline.

From the start of the legislative session in early March, it was clear Florida lawmakers were not interested in honoring the voters' mandate. The initial version of the House bill was partially drafted by anti-marijuana zealot and real estate developer Mel Sembler and his group Drug Free America. It was a severely restrictive proposal that banned smokeable, edible and vapable forms of pot, and would have forced patients to wait 90 days to receive authorization to use medical pot. (Calvina Fay, Drug Free America's executive director, did not respond to an email request for comment.)

"It also reinforced the cartel system of marijuana businesses, giving a few big corporate special interests control of the entire market," Pollara told me of the doomed proposal. "I believe strongly that this cartel system will ultimately harm patient access through high prices, a lack of diverse products, and no true competition."

As the house bill progressed through various committees, it was changed to allow vaping and edibles and eliminated the 90 day waiting period. But the legislation promised a significant boost to the seven current license holders by allowing them to open an unlimited number of dispensaries across the state. At stake is a legal medical marijuana marketplace that could be valued at $1.6 billion by 2020, according to a report issued by California-based Arcview Market Research.

The State Senate, on the other hand, moved to restrict the number of retail facilities a single medical marijuana provider could open, and offered to allow more companies to compete for licenses. Initially, ten new firms would be licensed by this fall and as demand rose, more licenses would be awarded to new competitors. The impasse occurred when Corcoran (whose brother is a lobbyist for one of the state's existing providers) and Negron couldn't reach an agreement on the number of dispensaries a license holder might open. Corcoran wanted 100, while Negron to place the cap at 50.

All hope isn't lost. Patient advocates, including former congresswoman and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, are pushing Governor Rick Scott to call a special session to hammer out a deal that places patients ahead of the medical marijuana industry. And sooner or later—the official deadline is July 3—medical weed is going to get bigger, and probably cheaper, in the state. The question is who profits in the meantime.

"We were so close to having a defined regulatory structure," said Louis Rotundo, a lobbyist for CBSync Inc., a medical marijuana company looking to enter the Florida market. "We believe that it would have been good to open up competition. Absent legislative or gubernatorial action to call a special session, we have a system that benefits a few firms."