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Florida medical marijuana patients say lawmakers are ignoring the will of the voters by creating unnecessary red tape

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At workshops set up by health officials across the state, raucous, standing-room-only crowds ripped into the department's draft rules. Some people wanted the department to end the 90-day waiting period between when doctors first see patients and when they can start recommending medical marijuana. Others, like James Fowler, a St. Cloud patient who spoke at a public meeting in Orlando on Feb. 8, criticized the department for allowing the limited number of dispensing organizations to become monopolies that can control the market and keep prices high.

"You're putting yourselves between my doctor and myself and my medication. That's wrong," Fowler said to health department officials. "They're not going to come down off their prices because we can't afford anything. ... That's gonna force us to go to illegal means and have to go to the illegal dealers that you guys are trying to combat. All you're doing, sir, is promoting the illegal activities of the black market with what you're doing, with your asinine rules and regulations."

Six plans have emerged so far from Florida lawmakers, and while they're mostly similar, the most controversial plan so far has been filed in the House by state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. The Rodrigues plan, HB 1397, bans smoking, vaping or eating marijuana in commercial food products like brownies or gummies, though vaping would be allowed for terminal patients. (Under current Florida law, "smoking" means burning or igniting a substance and inhaling smoke. That definition does not include the use of a vaporizer.) Medical marijuana patients charged with drug-related crimes would have their registrations immediately suspended.

This bill is "out of line" with the constitution and restricts access to medical marijuana even further than the current law, according to Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care and former campaign manager for the effort to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

"Everyone's just asking, 'How do you consume it?'" Pollara says. "It came as total shock to me, in terms of the restrictions, because they go well beyond what the amendment says, beyond what current statue says. ... It's totally out of line with how people feel about this issue."

Pollara also criticized the bill's requirement that medical marijuana be grown, processed and sold by the same dispensing organizations. The measure also proposes adding six more dispensing organization when the state reaches 150,000 medical marijuana patients, five more when there are 200,000 patients, and three more for every 100,000 patients who register. That's not true to the free-market ideal that Republicans who control the state Legislature have preached in other situations, Pollara argues.

"These folks live and breathe the scriptures of the free market," he says. "This House Speaker, in particular, has preached gospel of 'we need more transparency,' that we shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers. I don't think this qualifies as a free market."

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who recently proposed a measure to decriminalize small amounts of recreational marijuana, says the Rodrigues bill treats marijuana "like anthrax."

"It's unconstitutional," he says. "It's just another demonstration how out-of-touch House Republicans are with Floridians. Marijuana is a plant. Tens of thousands of people die from alcohol poisoning and opioid overdoses. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, period. I just don't understand what's the big deal."

On his end, Rodrigues says the charge he received from House Speaker Richard Corcoran was to write the bill in a way that treats marijuana as medicine and protects Floridians. Critics who think his edibles ban includes marijuana oils, tinctures and pills are making a "ridiculous assertion," he adds.

"Most of the bills proposed prohibit smoking, so it's a majority opinion," Rodrigues says. "There's people who would want to cast this bill in as extreme a light as they possibly can."

The decision to ban edibles came after Andrew Freedman, Colorado's former marijuana czar, testified in front of the House Health Quality subcommittee about people overdosing on edibles because it takes more time for them to take effect, and about proper packaging of edibles to keep them away from children. Rodrigues says physicians who are pro-medical marijuana conceded that they don't support smoking as a vehicle for medical marijuana.

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