TALLAHASSEE --- Bowing to a demand by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a measure that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if doctors deem it the proper treatment.
Under the proposal, patients could buy up to 2.5 ounces of medical pot during a 35-day period and would be able to possess up to 4 ounces of cannabis at any given time. Smoking of medical cannabis --- which would have to be purchased from state-authorized operators --- would be banned in public places. And patients under age 18 would be allowed to smoke the treatment only if they are terminally ill and have a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician.
The Senate’s 34-4 vote in favor of the measure (SB 182) came two days after the start of the 2019 legislative session, and the House is expected to take up the measure Wednesday.
“We have been working around the clock, with our colleagues in the House and with the governor’s office, to come up with a consensus product. I think we have done that,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview Thursday.
The quick legislative action comes in response to an ultimatum delivered by the Republican governor shortly after he took office in January. DeSantis gave the Legislature until March 15 to address the smoking ban. If they don’t act, DeSantis threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the prohibition violates a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The smoking ban was included in a 2017 law aimed at carrying out the amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016.
Cathy Jordan, a plaintiff in the case, credits a daily regimen of smoking marijuana with keeping her alive decades after doctors predicted she would die from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jordan, who grows her own pot and who is highly regarded by pot advocates nationwide, testified last year that smoking marijuana treats a variety of life-threatening side effects of the disease and that other forms of ingestion don’t have the same positive impact.
Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long advocated for medical marijuana, praised the soft-spoken Jordan’s tireless efforts to get the Legislature to sign off on smokable medical cannabis.
“Every year, she comes up and she would visit us,” Brandes said. “Cathy Jordan was a champion.”
Several Republican lawmakers, however, bristled at the idea of legalizing smokable pot, which Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland called a dangerous “gateway drug.”
The proposal requires the state university system’s Board of Governors to designate a university to house a “Consortium for Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes Research” and would steer $1.5 million each year to fund the research, which would be based on data submitted by doctors.
But Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said that doing away with the ban defies common sense because of the well-known negative health effects of smoking.
“I guess we could take any medication and now say why don’t we smoke any medication? There’s lots of medications out there, and I think we ought to open it up to that, unless we think there’s something wrong with that,” he said. “The research needs to be done before we implement it, not afterwards.”
But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in passage of the state’s medical marijuana laws, argued the legislation erects “reasonable guiderails” that would be lacking if the governor drops the court appeal.
“It’s time to move this discussion from Tallahassee to doctors’ offices around the state of Florida,” he said.
But Bradley, a former prosecutor, also challenged doctors to take the issue seriously.
“This is a medicine. Treat it as such,” he said. “Make sure when you make your decisions with your patients that you do so in their health, in their best interest, and not turn this into some kind of joke.”
The newly inaugurated DeSantis appeared at a news conference Jan. 17 with Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the 2016 constitutional amendment, to deliver an unambiguous ultimatum about eliminating the smoking ban, saying the “sword of Damocles” was hanging over the head of legislative leaders.
“We have to comply with the Constitution. I am not going to fight these lawsuits when we are on the losing side of them. So if they continue to do a bill that’s constitutional, then we will move on,” DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, told reporters Tuesday.
Senate President Bill Galvano, however, is among those who believe the ban does not violate the constitutional amendment, which does not specifically state that smoking of medical marijuana is allowed.
“I think we were right when we interpreted the amendment the way it was interpreted … but the world we find ourselves in is where the courts disagreed with us. That’s how it works, and we have respect for the courts and respect for the Constitution that we’ve sworn to uphold. So we’ve done what I think is taking some reasonable steps in meeting the requirements of both,” the Bradenton Republican told reporters after Thursday’s floor session.
If the House approves the bill and DeSantis signs it into law as expected, it’s unclear how long it will take for smokable pot to become available to patients.
State health officials would still have to craft rules regulating smokable marijuana. And DeSantis has yet to appoint a Department of Health secretary, who also serves as the state’s surgeon general.
The state’s largest medical marijuana operator, Trulieve, is prepared to offer whole-plant products to patients “as soon as all rules and approvals are in place,” the company said in a news release following passage of the bill.
“Though we do not have an exact date for when these rules will be in place, we understand patients’ urgency in getting immediate access to this form of medicine and are working to be as prepared as possible for when approvals are granted,” the Quincy-based company said in a statement.