JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With only five months left to implement regulations regarding Amendment 2, the Florida Department of Health has begun rule development workshops this week in Duval County.

The not-so-subtle undertone of the workshops, thus far, has been to avoid modeling impending legal definitions after preexisting ones.

The first of five workshops were held on Monday afternoon at the Duval County Health Department in Jacksonville. Every seat in the room was filled with men and women of all ages and nationalities, by the time the session began. 

A majority of those in attendance had signed up at the door to offer a public comment on the preliminary set of rules, which had been released on Jan. 17. The proposed set of rules deviate little from those listed in Florida Statute 381.986.

When comparing the two, only minor changes were made to preexisting definitions, as well as the addition of several new ones. For example, the term “caregiver” will now hold the same definition as legal representative, as previously defined.

The State of Florida has until September before they are legally obligated to start registering new medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs) and distributing identification cards to caregivers and qualified patients. The state has only until July, though, to produce a set of “reasonable regulations,” outlining how they plan to proceed.

Those regulations will cover topics such as the annual renewal process for both caregivers and patients, the registration process for MMTCs, qualifying debilitating medical conditions and possession/supply limits.

According to Christian Bax, Director of the Office of Compassionate Use, to get anything implemented of this gravity within nine months is “very, very, very fast for the Florida government.”

Before turning over the floor to those who had come to share an opinion on the proposed definitions and regulations, he reminded the room that the preliminary text being projected onto the wall was a draft, not the final product. Bax assured the crowd that the Department of Health was simply there to listen to them for the next couple of hours.

First round of public comments

“You make it so hard on us here, we about have to move to Colorado,” said Randy Cheatum, a patient here in North Florida, who has sought medical marijuana treatment for the past 20 years.

The State of Colorado, and how it has embraced and promulgated medical cannabis laws, is something that was brought up several times throughout the meeting, specifically in regards to pricing of the medicine here in Florida and its difficulty of access.

As it stands, before getting a prescription filled, a patient must first register online with the State of Florida through the Department of Health’s compassionate use registry and then be treated by a qualifying physician for at least three months. Many who showed up to publicly voice a concern mentioned how this 90-day waiting period is entirely too long for those who are suffering.

“Quite frankly, I’m going to go out in the street and get it,” said Fred Feldman, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma over 30 years ago.

Feldman participated in clinical chemotherapy trials in an effort to eradicate the cancer, but the nausea and vomiting he experienced as a side effect made it impossible for him to eat. Feldman said, medical marijuana helped him start to eat entire meals again and more importantly, keep the food down.

Patient after patient stepped forward and voiced the same concern for the three month waiting period, urging the Department of Health to not adopt this restriction when formulating laws for Amendment 2.

The long road to decriminalization

Even those who were at one point skeptical about the benefits of such medicine showed up to tell the FDOH how they felt. Mark Bench, a retired circuit judge and now business owner and advocate for medical cannabis was not always so open to the use of such drugs. Twenty years prior to his diagnosis with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Bench had put over 300 people in jail for marijuana-related offenses.

Bench was hesitant to try the medicine his wife had brought to him, while they were staying in Colorado, but after some convincing he eventually gave in.

“For seven days I said, ‘I’m not taking that.’ On day seven my wife came to me and said, ‘You’re either taking this or I’m leaving you.’ So, I took it. I violated law. I violated everything I knew.”

According to Bench, two weeks later his conditions started getting better. Then and there, he decided he would keep breaking the law and start trying to change it by speaking out about the positive effects of this demonized drug.

“I was wrong, so very wrong,” Bench said. “Our whole government lied to us about the fact that it’s medicinal, for 70 years. That made me angry as hell.”

Bench and his wife now run an organization known as Rethink Green, which specializes in education, research and advocacy for medical cannabis. Bench said he doesn’t expect things to change overnight though.

“We had it all wrong, and it’s not going to turn around in a year or two,” Bench said. “It’s not going to turn around with this law. It’s five to ten years away.”

Patients want a free-market

One thing that was continually echoed throughout the course of the workshop was the need for horizontal integration in regards to how medical cannabis is produced, transported and sold. There are currently only seven dispensaries in the state, with no indication of more being approved by the Department of Health in the near future.

Consequently, this is driving up the prices of the limited medication that is currently available. And those who are already having to pay exaggerated prices for prescribed medicine are saying the state is creating "medical marijuana cartels" by restricting the number of licensed dispensaries.

Under the compassionate use statute, only businesses that have been registered as a nursery in the State of Florida for the past 30 consecutive years are even allowed to apply for the license. A $5 million performance bond is also required before it is all said and done.

A costly process for the select group of dispensaries who have already received their license, but a profitable venture nonetheless. As it stands, these seven dispensaries are required by law to grow, produce, transport and dispense their own product. This is what's called vertical integration or a closed-market.

Effectively, the sky is the limit right now for these dispensaries, due to a lack of competition. The faster they can open up storefronts, the more clientele they will reach.

Jonathan Carr, Deputy Director for the Northeast Florida chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), spoke to the FDOH during the workshop and asked them to look to states like Colorado in regards to implementing regulations. Carr said he is hoping the State of Florida opens up and allows for a free-market.

“If you have a vertical integration with just seven dispensaries, or even 10 or 15 dispensaries across the whole state, that’s not going to be enough,” said Carr. “A free-market enterprise is going to open us up to a whole range of different businesses that are able to come into this, a lot more money generated for the state and a lot more employment and jobs.”

Senate Bill 614

Both Bench and Carr mentioned during public comment, a piece of legislation that was recently introduced by Florida Senator Jeffrey Brandes. If enacted, Senate Bill 614 would require independent licensing for the cultivation, processing, transportation and retailing of medical cannabis. Under SB 614, MMTCs could apply for just one license or a combination of the four.

In addition, Brandes’ bill would remove the 30-year nursery experience requirement and reduce the compliance bond amount to $1 million. However, applicants intending to grow and produce medical cannabis would have to provide proof of technical and technological knowledge as it pertains to cultivation and testing. There would also be fees assessed for the application process, licensing and the biennial renewal for each of the four licenses.

“We can’t have one business doing everything,” said Carr. “A nursery should grow the plant, a dispensary should dispense the plant and a transportation company being able to transport the plant. All of that should be licensed and regulated. There should be no problems behind that as long as it is done correctly.”

Senator Brandes’ bill, if nothing else, should supply momentum to the lengthy rulemaking process that lies ahead for the FDOH.

If you are interested in participating in one of the rulemaking workshops this week, they will be held in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee.

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