Florida pot dispensers could truck their product to patients, under a revised rule proposed by health regulators in advance of a workshop Friday about the state's move to a limited type of medical marijuana.
The latest plan also would loosen restrictions on who could own the dispensing organizations. Nurseries with only one-quarter ownership of pot distribution businesses would be eligible for licenses, according to the draft rule released late Tuesday by the state Department of Health's Office of Compassionate Use.
Despite numerous complaints expressed by nursery owners, lobbyists and others at a rule-making workshop earlier this month, health officials aren't backing away from a lottery-based system to choose the recipients of five licenses, a competition drawing operators and investors from around the world.
The state has until Jan 1. to come up with the regulations regarding a strain of marijuana, authorized by the Republican-dominated Legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year, that purportedly does not get users high but can alleviate life-threatening seizures in children with severe epilepsy. Under the new law, patients who suffer from severe muscle spasms or cancer would also be eligible to get cannabis that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, if their doctors order it.
The law restricts dispensary applicants --- who would grow, process and distribute the low-THC product, usually a paste or oil --- to nurseries that have done business in Florida for at least 30 years and grow 400,000 plants or more. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has identified at least 55 nurseries that currently meet the criteria.
Nursery owners have been bombarded by offers from investors and operators eager to cash in on the state's newest regulated industry. Rumors are rampant about nurseries that are demanding millions from potential partners or growers who are being offered money to stay on the sidelines. Many of those interested in "Charlotte's Web," a low-THC strain named after a Colorado girl, are hoping to get started in the pot business now with an eye on a proposed constitutional amendment going before voters in November that would allow doctors to order "traditional" medical marijuana for certain patients.
In the meantime, eligible nursery operators are pairing up with lobbyists and lawyers as they wade into turf unfamiliar to even the most sophisticated regulatory experts.
The law allows one dispensing organization in each of five regions around the state. It also allows the dispensing organizations to have "an infrastructure reasonably located to dispense low-THC cannabis to registered patients statewide or regionally as determined by the department."
At the rule-making workshop earlier this month, health officials heard that just five locations would be inadequate to meet patients' needs.
The new draft rule would allow dispensing organizations to deliver 30-day supplies of the medical marijuana derivative directly to patients. Potential operators are divided on the transportation issue.
"An infrastructure cannot be a truck. An infrastructure is a place," said Louis Rotundo, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association, a coalition of growers, investors and others interested in the pot business.
The proposed rule may also mean that dispensing organizations can transport their product statewide.
Giving dispensers the ability to distribute statewide as the law permits is critical, said Ron Watson, a lobbyist who is consulting for a group of former pharmaceutical executives who want one of the five licenses.
"A regional distribution system has no checks and balances and will punish the patient through cost and availability. A patient should be able to choose the best medicine regardless of where it is grown," said Watson, who also represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association.
The proposed rule also would restrict dispensaries from opening near schools, day-care centers, churches and public parks, which Rotundo said is too far-reaching.
"Why should they not be allowed to open as if they were any other drug store in the jurisdiction? They're dispensing a medicine and certainly a medicine much less dangerous than every pharmacy carries. I'm not following the logic of this," said Rotundo, who also represents several municipalities.
The latest version of the rule also restricts nurseries to applying in only one region, meaning that at least five nurseries would be able to participate in the industry. Growers are forging partnerships in some areas of the state.
And the proposed rule also addressed some concerns that potential owners expressed earlier this month regarding a lack of clarity about a $5 million performance bond required by the law. Under the draft rule, a condition of the bond would be that the money would be used to destroy all of a dispensing organization's pot if the dispensary loses its license or chooses not to renew it. The condition of the bond may help potential businesses secure funding from investors or even banks.
Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who was instrumental in getting the low-THC measure passed, said she was pleased that health officials took some of the concerns expressed at the last meeting into consideration.
But Edwards said the "million-dollar question" regarding pot's future in Florida remains unresolved -- how the original plants, seeds or tissue culture will get into the hands of growers. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
University of Florida scientists recently revealed the school would not participate in research -- the law contains $1 million for the university to study the effect of low-THC, high-CBD marijuana on epileptic children -- because it could lose millions of dollars in federal grants.
"I equate it to the 'what came first the chicken or the egg' question. In Florida, we are trying to figure out what comes first -- the low-THC cannabis plant or the Charlotte's Web medicine?" Edwards said.
Kerry Herndon, owner of Kerry's Nursery in Apopka, blasted health officials for keeping the lottery provision in the proposed rule.
"It's a disaster for the patient population. You're making medicine for sick children. So it's like anybody at random within the pool and not the most qualified? Really?" said Herndon, whose nursery is eligible for one of the licenses and who is interested in pursuing one.
Health officials are doing the best they can to meet "a very aggressive timeline" set by the Legislature, said Sen. Rob Bradley, one of the bill's sponsors.
"We have told them that they need to produce a rule by Jan. 1, 2015, and they need to come up with a system whereby we can get this in the hands of the parents of the suffering children. I trust the department to come up with a practical way to get Charlotte's Web in the hands of these suffering families," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.