A lobbyist for the marihuana she became the only Democrat in the state to be sworn into office. Smoking medical marijuana became legal in Florida. A new hemp program gave farmers across the state optimism for a new cash crop. Overall, 2019 turned out to be a monumental year for cannabis in the state.
By Miami Diario Newsroom
In February, the state hired its first "cannabis czar", in August the Miami-Dade State Attorney Announced He Will No Longer Prosecute Minor Marijuana Cases and in October, two associates of Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, sought marijuana licenses in the state.
The new year brings a new list of things to watch in the cannabis space, such as a push for 2020 voters to decide to allow recreational marijuana in the state, a list of bills that could reshape the cannabis industry Florida marijuana and a state Supreme Court decision that could be instrumental in shaping the marijuana licensing system for years to come.
As the state gears up for another eventful year in the cannabis space, we'll recount some of the year's biggest stories in Florida cannabis and look ahead to what's to come.
After grueling machine and manual recounts for the Agriculture deputy race, Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist, emerged victorious in the November 2018 race to beat Matt Caldwell by just 6.753 votes for the seat vacated by President Adam Putnam.
In January, she was sworn in as the first statewide candidate to run on a platform heavily based on cannabis, especially expanded access to medical marijuana and a new state hemp program. Medical marijuana advocates and the cannabis community at large applauded her victory.
Fulfilling his campaign promises, Fried hired Nashville banker and consultant Holly Bell to be the department's first Chief Cannabis Officer.
Bell, who has been consulting as a banking expert for cannabis businesses across the country since 2015, has taken the lead in getting the state's new hemp program off the ground. Tennessee has its own state hemp program, which Bell said she was very familiar with.
"I really didn't come with any agenda other than to implement a vision that the commissioner had and help the people of Florida," Bell said in an interview shortly after being hired.
Following instructions from DeSantis in January, the Legislature passed a bill quietly signed in mid-March that makes smoking marijuana a legal method of medicating Florida patients.
The bill was heavily inspired by Cathy Jordan, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease and relies on smoking marijuana to dry out her mouth and clear phlegm from her lungs. Jordan was one of the people who sued the state for banning smoking as a way to use medical marijuana.
"In her calm voice, she would advocate for smokable medical cannabis," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “As Floridians, even those who barely have a voice in this process can be heard, recognized and respected. This legislation honors that in a responsible way."
The bill also establishes a research consortium, allows products like bongs and rolling papers to be purchased, and requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under the age of 18.
In April, an appeals court ruled that Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner, 77, did not have the legal right to grow his own medical marijuana to fight lung cancer.
The decision overturned Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers' ruling that gave Redner the green light to grow marijuana for juice. Redner's attorneys argued that because he is a qualifying patient, he has the right to use the marijuana he grows to treat his stage 4 lung cancer.
The Department of Health, the entity that administers the state's medical marijuana program, disagreed.
In late May, the Florida Supreme Court decided it would not hear the case.
On the penultimate day of the 2019 legislative session, the Legislature passed a bill that allows the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a state hemp program.
The push for a hemp program in Florida had been largely bipartisan and played into a national trend of following what some call the "green rush" of financial opportunity for farmers and manufacturers across the state.
After the passage of the 2014 federal farm bill, hemp cultivation was permitted under certain circumstances by research institutions and state departments of agriculture. The 2018 farm bill removed bans on industrial hemp and authorized states to create hemp programs beyond the realm of university research.
In accordance with the bill, the Florida Department of Agriculture submitted a plan to the US Department of Agriculture and requested primary regulatory authority over hemp production last summer. Although Bell and others at the Department of Agriculture hoped to have seeds in the ground before the end of the year, no licenses have been issued.
Spurred by the new state law that legalized the possession of hemp, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office announced that it will no longer prosecute minor marijuana cases.
For amounts large enough for felony charges, police will now have to do lab tests to confirm that the marijuana is, well, actually marijuana. The decision highlights the growing complications for law enforcement in states where recreational marijuana remains illegal but hemp is now allowed.
"Because hemp and cannabis come from the same plant, they look, smell and feel the same," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote to explain the decision. “There is no way to visually or microscopically distinguish hemp from marijuana.”
For the first time in the history of Congress, a separate marijuana bill passed the House of Representatives. The Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would prohibit regulators from punishing banks that serve cannabis companies and customers.
The bill, sponsored by Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter, also prohibits federal regulators from terminating or limiting deposit insurance, discouraging banks from offering financial services to cannabis or hemp businesses, and prohibits them from incentivizing or encouraging a bank to close accounts solely because a person is affiliated with a cannabis or hemp business. Banks have been hesitant to service the medical cannabis industry because it is still illegal at the federal level.
The bill has not yet been heard in the Senate.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two South Florida businessmen charged in October with illegally funneling foreign money into US politics in an attempt to buy influence in Washington and cannabis licenses in multiple US states, also pursued the entry into the Florida medical marijuana industry.
As recently as May, Parnas and Fruman spoke with attorneys in Florida's marijuana industry about buying a stake in any of the 22 companies licensed in the state to grow marijuana. But their plan seemed unsuccessful due to their inability to prove that they had the money.
After smokable medical marijuana was legalized in March, medical marijuana treatment centers in Florida have dispensed 20.252 ounces of the drug from the whole flower, and companies are feeling the demand from the nearly 300.000 qualified patients.
Some patients say they have trouble finding the product in stores and have to drive long distances to find a dispensary that carries their preferred medicine.
It can take about 10 months from the time a company wants to expand its growth operation to the time products can hit the shelves, making it difficult to keep up with customer needs.
A typical medical marijuana grow facility can take up to six months to build, with the actual cultivation of the plants taking another four to five months, depending on the condition.
With the February deadline to submit 766.200 verified signatures fast approaching, organizers of the Regulate Florida ballot initiative were faced with a harsh truth: They are not likely to collect enough signatures in time to make it to the 2020 ballot.
The initiative, which advocated not only for the recreational use of marijuana but also for the right to grow the plant at home, had gathered only 92.540 valid signatures as of December 17.
"The sad reality is that we are not going to be able to meet the [February] deadline," President Michael Minardi wrote to supporters.
With 2020 on the horizon, all eyes are on new legislation and a marijuana industry-backed ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
There are a handful of cannabis-related bills that have been introduced ahead of the 2020 session, which begins in January. Some important bills aim to:
▪ Waive the $75 medical card fee for patients who are veterans.
▪ Eliminate the vertically integrated business model in Florida's medical marijuana law and undo the cap on the number of licenses. The current model holds that a license holder must grow, process, test and sell their product without any subcontractors or intermediaries.
▪ Prohibit retail marijuana facilities from producing their own products, as they are currently required to do.
▪ Authorize patients to have more than one caregiver to administer medications. For example, a school nurse could administer medicine at school instead of a parent coming to the school to treat her child.
▪ Add sickle cell anemia to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana use.
▪ Allow records of cannabis possession charges to be expunged and sealed.
Source: Tampa Bay