Florida Republicans are blaming each other over medical marijuana failure

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With its fate now in the hands of state health officials, Republican legislative leaders are blaming each other for failing to create a framework for carrying out a voter-approved constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The finger-pointing came after eleventh-hour negotiations between House and Senate leaders bombed in the waning hours of the legislative session Friday, when all issues but the budget closed out.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida, Senate President Joe Negron put the onus on the House for the bill's demise. But House Speaker Richard Corcoran rejected that premise.

The medical marijuana issue led to a major lobbying battle throughout the 2017 legislative session. That included high-powered lobbyists representing seven medical-marijuana operators already licensed to do business in Florida after lawmakers approved limited medical-marijuana laws in 2014 and 2016.

The November constitutional amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters, sparked a “green rush” for investors, growers and ancillary business owners eager to capitalize on what could be one of the largest pot markets in the country, with an estimated 500,000 patients, according to the Department of Health, in its first year.

The issue pitted the already-established operators against businesses in and out of Florida seeking to break up what critics characterized as an established “cartel.”

While GOP leaders in the House and Senate began far apart on how to approach the implementation of what was known as Amendment 2, they ironed out most of their differences in the waning days of the session.

But two key sticking points —- the number of licensed marijuana operators and how many retail locations they should run —- ultimately proved a breach too big to seal.

The Senate wanted to limit the number of dispensaries each operator could open, while the House —- which originally backed an unlimited number of storefronts —- preferred a more liberal approach that would have, at least temporarily, favored the current license-holders.

A plan approved by the Senate would have required 10 new medical marijuana licenses by the fall, along with a cap of 10 dispensaries, which would increase as the number of eligible patients in a statewide database increased.

Late Friday, the House approved a measure that would have required 10 new licenses by July 2018, with a limit of 100 dispensaries for each license holder.

A frustrated Negron contacted the News Service on Sunday afternoon to offer his take on the breakdown over the legislation, faulting the House's last-minute amendment for the stand-off that ultimately killed the bill.

“People are saying the House was the free market. No, it wasn't. The Senate was the free market. The Senate was 10 immediate licenses. We put a reasonable limitation on dispensaries so everyone could compete,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.

But Corcoran insisted that Negron, not the House, was responsible for the Legislature's failure to act on the constitutional amendment.

“The House did everything it could to pass a bill that complied with the voters' wishes on everything we could, including sending a bill back with over three hours left in session for the Senate to be able to pass,” Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said in a telephone interview Sunday evening.

Negron maintained the Senate never received the bill from the House, while House leaders contend that was because the Senate stopped receiving messages Friday evening after deciding to call it quits.

Hours earlier, Senate leaders —- including Bill Galvano, slated to take over as president late next year, and Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the marijuana legislation —- scurried back and forth between the chambers in last-minute negotiations. According to legislators privy to the negotiations, the House backed down from its initial desire for unlimited dispensaries and instead agreed to a cap of 50.

But Negron rejected that number, according to House leaders. The House then slapped a cap of 100 dispensaries on the bill, intending to send that offer back to the Senate.

Negron said House knew its plan —- which came after the Senate offered to increase the dispensary cap to 15 per operator —- was doomed.

“I didn't think 100 was a serious proposal,” Negron said. “So when we went to 15, I was expecting the House to consider a number that was at least in the ballpark of reasonableness. Instead they go from 50 to 100 and then they don't even send us the bill. And then somehow the Senate killed the bill when I think a reasonable interpretation is that the bill died in the House.”

Negron said the Senate was united on two major fronts.

“We did not want a proliferation of pot shops on every corner,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. “The second guiding principle was that there should be an open and robust marketplace with reasonable entry into the market for other competitors. We wanted to be fair to the incumbent companies, but at the same time create a level playing field for the entry of other potential competitors.”

The Senate included the dispensary caps in its proposal to allow competition, which he —- and many backers of Amendment 2 —- maintained would benefit patients by keeping prices down.

Under the House proposal, the seven existing operators each could have opened 100 retail outlets before a new marijuana operator received a license, Negron said.

“So you would have 700 dispensaries throughout Florida, and then wait one year before anyone else can compete. The incumbents would have overwhelmed the market, and you'd have 700 distribution points, where we have less than 7,500 people on the registry right now,” he said.

According to House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the chamber's chief negotiator on the marijuana bill, each dispensary is capable of managing an estimated 1,000 patients, which the House used as the basis for what leaders considered a required number of dispensaries to ensure patient access.

Corcoran insisted that patients wanted both access to the treatment and for medical marijuana to be treated as medicine, something he said the House plan provided.

But critics of the House proposal said it included too many restrictions proposed by opponents of the amendment. They favored the Senate's legislation, even with the caps, saying it would open up the market to new vendors.

Implementation of the amendment now rests in the hands of the Department of Health, which was harshly criticized for its roll out of the 2014 law that legalized low-THC marijuana.

The agency has spent more than $1.3 million in legal fees and costs since the law was passed defending its rules and decisions in granting licenses to marijuana operators.

Lawmakers, unable to finalize a deal on the budget before the scheduled end of the legislative session Friday, were scheduled to be in session until as late as 11:59 p.m. Monday, and Corcoran challenged Negron to take up the issue again.

“If President Negron is blaming the House, I'd be happy to expand the call and have the Senate pass the House bill,” Corcoran said.

But Negron said Sunday his first priority was getting the budget passed.

“Once that's accomplished, then I want to talk with my fellow senators and with the governor and the speaker and then decide what course of action, if any is necessary,” he said.

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