The state would have more than a dozen pot operators —- with unlimited retail locations —- under a proposal overwhelmingly approved by the Florida House on Tuesday.
The latest version of the House bill brings the House and Senate closer to finalizing a medical marijuana measure before Friday's scheduled end of the legislative session.
Lawmakers are attempting to reach consensus on a plan to implement a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for patients with a broad swath of debilitating conditions. More than 71 percent of voters approved the amendment in November.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the bill's sponsor, told the chamber that the changes approved Tuesday were the result of negotiations with the Senate.
One of the main contrasts between the House and Senate bills involved the number of "medical marijuana treatment centers," now known as dispensing organizations. The Senate wanted to boost the number of operators; the House had initially balked at the prospect.
But the House plan passed by a 105-9 vote Tuesday would require health officials to add 10 new medical marijuana treatment centers by next summer to the seven businesses currently licensed to grow, process and dispense cannabis products. Under the Senate proposal (SB 406), health officials would have to grant five new licenses by October and more new licenses as the number of patients registered for the treatment increases, something also included in the House plan.
Rodrigues said his revised bill (HB 1397), modified to include a Senate component allowing Florida businesses that have been operating for five years to apply for a license, resolves nearly all of the differences with the Senate.
The House had taken a much stricter approach to the implementation of the amendment, and Rodrigues has repeatedly relied on an Obama Administration memo outlining how states can craft medical marijuana laws to avoid problems, since marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law.
Rodrigues said lawmakers were forced to walk a "dueling path" to respect the will of Florida voters and the federal law.
"This is a double-edged sword that we are teetering on," said Rodrigues, R-Estero.
The measure would allow patients to use vaporizers or edibles, but would ban smoking of marijuana products, something critics complain violates the spirit of the constitutional amendment.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, said marijuana is safer than prescription drugs that have caused overdoses.
"Would we rather have them use dangerous prescription drugs ... or would we prefer that they smoke a bowl and go to sleep and actually wake up the next morning?" Smith asked. "Who are we to tell legitimate patients that they can't smoke their cannabis? That is not our business, members. It's not our business to infringe upon their personal freedoms; it's not our business to infringe on the sacred patient-doctor relationship."
But Rodrigues defended what he called a "patient-centered" proposal.
"What I have tried to do is make sure that we do this in a way that honors the letter of the amendment and the spirit of the amendment, but also exists within the confines of federal law, which is a paradox. This is a schedule one substance, which is illegal," he said.
How many dispensaries the marijuana treatment centers are allowed to open remains the main sticking point between the two chambers.
The Senate plan caps the number of retail locations each licensee can operate at three, a number that sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said is too small. The House plan maintains current law, which allows an unlimited number of dispensaries, which Rodrigues said "are much more important" to patients than the number of licensees.
Critics —- including investors, growers and others who want to get into Florida's potentially lucrative pot market —- object that, even with the additional licenses in the House plan, a limit on the numbers of purveyors could lead to prices that might be too high for some patients.
The House bill "puts profits over patient access," according to Ben Pollara, campaign chairman of the political committee that backed the constitutional amendment.
"It not only maintains, but strengthens the cartel system of licensed marijuana growers in Florida," Pollara said in a statement. "Prices will be high, quality will be low, and choices will be few. Patients will be driven to the black market."
The Senate is expected to take up its proposal on the floor Wednesday for the first time.
"A lot of the House bill reflects a lot of the things you've seen in the Senate bill," Bradley told reporters late Tuesday.
Bradley would not say what —- if any —- concessions senators would make when they take up the measure. But, he added, "at the end of the week, we're going to have a bill."