Citing frustration with delays in getting non-euphoric cannabis to patients, a Florida Senate panel Thursday pushed forward a revised attempt to create a regulatory framework for the pot industry but did not include changes sought by black farmers who complain they would be shut out of the industry.
The bill, approved by the Senate Rules Committee and headed to the Senate floor, would quadruple the number of state-approved businesses that could participate, from five to 20.
The Florida Department of Health would choose by lottery two licensees in each of five regions to grow, process and distribute cannabis that reportedly does not get users high but is believed to dramatically reduce or eliminate life-threatening seizures in children with rare forms of epilepsy. Ten other "dispensing organizations" would also receive licenses.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, who was instrumental in passage of a 2014 measure that legalized the non-euphoric pot for certain patients, is backing another effort this session after legal challenges delayed health officials' attempts to get the medical marijuana industry off the ground.
In addition to increasing the number of "dispensing organizations," Bradley's bill would expand the types of patients who would be eligible for the treatment, but would leave intact the makeup of the marijuana -- a maximum of 0.08 percent of euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and at least 10 percent cannabadiol, or CBD -- currently authorized in the law. Critics say the THC levels are too low to aid patients with cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's diseases, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions included in the Senate plan (SB 7066), which also was expanded Thursday to include autism.
Bradley said he expects "a robust discussion" about the THC levels on the Senate floor when the bill comes up for a vote before the session ends May 1.
The revised measure, approved Thursday by the Regulated Industries Committee in an 11-1 vote, would also prevent marketing of the pot products as candies that would appeal to children.
Senate budget chief Tom Lee, a former Senate president, objected to the current law's requirement that nurseries must have operated in Florida for at least 30 years and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants to apply for one of the dispensing-organization licenses.
Qualified growers would "have to be one of the original settlers of Florida," Lee quipped.
No black farmers meet the criteria, representatives of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association recently told a Senate committee.
Bradley said he shared concerns about the requirements, but the committee rejected an attempt by Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a black lawyer from Tampa, to reduce the minimum years of operation for growers to five and the minimum number of plants to 100,000.
Bradley said he wouldn't defend those guidelines because they weren't his idea. But he said he is focused on getting the low-THC products to parents of children with severe epilepsy who pushed for the bill last year. Bradley's measure would require health officials to start issuing licenses within 75 days after the bill becomes law, which would happen as soon as Gov. Rick Scott signs it.
The House does not have a companion measure, but GOP leaders in the chamber have said they are waiting to see what happens with the Senate proposal.
"I made the decision, for what it's worth, that if we go too far in messing up what we did last year and we change it too fundamentally, then it will just result in more delays," Bradley said. "What I'm trying to do is clear the deck so we can get this in the ground and in the hands of these suffering families."