A Senate panel Tuesday began exploring issues surrounding medical marijuana as lawmakers prepare to carry out a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.
The Senate Health Policy Committee heard from a cannabis vendor, patient advocates, doctors and opponents of Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana for a broad swath of patients and set Florida in position to become one of the largest pot markets in the nation.
"The voters have spoken. It is our duty as their elected representatives to implement this amendment appropriately," committee Chairwoman Dana Young, R-Tampa, said at the onset of the two-hour meeting.
One of the biggest issues facing the Legislature is whether to expand the number of businesses authorized by the state to grow, process and distribute marijuana to an estimated 500,000 patients who would be eligible for the treatment when the amendment goes into effect in January.
Florida lawmakers first approved non-euphoric medical marijuana for a limited number of patients in 2014 and expanded the law to include full-strength pot for terminally ill patients early this year.
The Florida Department of Health has issued licenses to six "dispensing organizations" and could issue three more, once the number of patients in a statewide registry reaches 250,000. The Legislature added the provision for the additional licenses during the spring session in anticipation that the constitutional amendment would pass.
But Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the United for Care political committee that backed the initiative, told the Senate panel on Tuesday that the current number of licenses would not meet the expectations of voters or the language of the amendment, which requires health officials to issue "reasonable" regulations regarding medical marijuana.
Since the initiative received more than 70 percent approval in November, "it is more than a fair assessment to say that a vote for Amendment 2 was a vote to expand the market here," Pollara said.
The six dispensing organizations now authorized to sell medical marijuana were supposed to provide products to an estimated 100,000 patients, Pollara said.
To expect those businesses to serve a consumer base five times greater than anticipated "simply doesn't make sense," he added.
But Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers, the head of the first company to start distributing medical marijuana in Florida, told the committee that her organization now has the capacity to serve 72,000 patients and would soon be able to provide products to 650,000 patients.
About 1,300 patients eligible for medical marijuana under the laws passed in 2014 and early this year are registered in a statewide database, and 240 doctors have received the training required to order the treatment, state Office of Compassionate Use Director Christian Bax said Tuesday.
Those numbers are expected to escalate after the amendment goes into effect next month, Bax predicted.
"As a state, we will be watched to ensure we have a robust regulatory system," he said.
Law enforcement officials and opponents of the amendment asked lawmakers to consider imposing restrictions on the kinds of products that can be sold, including candy, and want local governments to have the discretion to regulate issues such as zoning and signage.
"We are not here to be obstructionists. We are here to be honest brokers in dealing with this matter, trying to provide a law enforcement perspective that is a value add to this. The people have spoken. It is clear," Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, Jr., said.
Others urged lawmakers to tread carefully with what some opponents deem a "gateway" to more hardcore drugs.
"If we don't aggressively seek to limit the use and sale of marijuana, our country and state as we know it will never be the same. Florida will be trading our beautiful white, sandy beaches filled with vacationing families for a hazy, skunk-smelling coastline laden with unemployable, unmotivated homeless people," said Teresa Miller, a drug prevention activist and founder of the No2Pot.org website.
As the committee mulls imposing restrictions, some people in the pot business are asking legislators to loosen provisions in the current laws they contend are a barrier to treatment.
Rivers and Mark Hashim, a pain management physician, asked the Legislature to consider doing away with the requirement that doctors treat patients for at least three months before being able to order medical marijuana for them.
Hashim said he recently encountered a terminally ill patient who likely had less than two months to live, but he could not assist her because he had not treated her for 90 days. The patient was unable to access the marijuana treatment because her other doctors were not authorized to order it, Hashim said.
"I have to look her in the face and say, I have something that might help you but I can't give it to you," he said.