Republican lawmakers clash over smoking medical marijuana

Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing lawmakers to make it legal to smoke medical marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Google

Since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took office one month ago, there is zero misunderstanding on where he stands on medical marijuana. He is pushing to end a state ban on smoking medical marijuana.

He wants the Legislature to repeal a ban on smoking medical marijuana, but it became clear Monday that some fellow Republicans might not be on board.

In a press conference, DeSantis said, "It was overwhelming support for it, we've just got to enact a statute that is going to pass constitutional muster, and I think what they did before was below the threshold.”

Nevertheless, some leaders in the Florida Legislature are still hesitant about a progressive change.

DeSantis has given state lawmakers until March 15 — 10 days after the 2019 legislative session begins — to address the smoking ban, which was included in a sweeping 2017 law aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

The first attempt to get a bill passed that would allow smoking medical marijuana was met with strong resistance, and the chairwoman of the Senate Health Policy Committee amended it to say that smoking  medical marijuana can only be allowed if two doctors agree that it’s the only form of the plant a patient can use. Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell talked about the dangers of smoking marijuana.

DeSantis agrees with proponents of the amendment and a Leon County circuit judge that the smoking ban runs afoul of the constitutional amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016. If lawmakers don’t act, the Republican governor threatened to drop the state’s appeal of the judge’s ruling that the ban is unconstitutional.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long been a proponent of medical marijuana, has filed a measure to strip the ban from the law.

On Monday Harrell, who chairs the Senate Health Policy Committee, significantly altered what had been a simple proposal by Brandes.

Under current law, doctors who have undergone two hours of training are able to order marijuana treatment for their patients. Harrell’s changes to the bill would require patients who want to smoke medical marijuana to seek a second opinion, from a doctor who is not certified by the state to order cannabis for patients. If a second doctor gives the nod, patients would then have to return to their original doctor to get the order.

Also under Harrell’s changes, doctors would only be able to order smoking marijuana if it is the only route of administration that will benefit patients.

Brandes called the changes “overly limiting” and “radically restrictive.” He said they would hamper patients and likely would not withstand court scrutiny.

But Harrell, a Republican who owns a health-care business and whose late husband was a doctor, called the requirements “common-sense safety measures” that would create “guardrails” to protect patients from the dangers of smoking.

Patient advocates argued that requiring three doctor visits, none of which would be covered by insurance, would impose an even harsher burden on sick Floridians, who already pay up to $500 for an initial visit with a medical marijuana doctor, $75 dollars for a state-issued patient identification card and hundreds of dollars more for their monthly treatment.

Harrell said Monday’s changes are a “first” as the legislation begins to finds its way through the process.

“We are moving certainly in the right direction,” she said.

But Brandes disagreed, saying Harrell put him in an “interesting spot” and noting that he would vote against the measure if he were a member of the committee.

“But I’m not. The challenge that I have is that my name’s on it and I understand that patients right now would be better off with no bill than with this bill,” he said.

The proposal “will have to be significantly amended” before he would be willing to bring it to the Senate floor for a full vote and be able to “look people in the eye and tell them (patients) that they would be better off.”