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Making good on a threat, lawmakers withhold budget funds from DOH over medical marijuana

By Elizabeth Koh
Published: March 8, 2018 Updated: March 8, 2018 at 07:47 PM
SCOTT KEELER | Times Left to right: Appropriations chairs Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R- Miami, and Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, were all smiles, Thursday, 3/8/18 after reaching a budget agreement in Tallahassee.

Lawmakers agreed Thursday to withhold more than $1.9 million in salaries and benefits for the Department of Health over medical marijuana delays, materializing threats to use the legislature's budgetary power to force officials to move faster on implementation.

The provision, which is embedded in the state budget, keeps money for department officials in reserve until medical marijuana regulations are implemented, per the constitutional amendment that legalized it for medical purposes in 2016 and a subsequent bill passed by the Legislature. Delays have dogged the process of obtaining and growing medical marijuana since the bill was passed, from a backlog in identification cards for patients to slowdowns in approving dispensing licenses and promulgating various regulations.

Lawmakers have grown increasingly irate with the department's lack of progress, particularly after health officials failed to respond for months to letters from a committee expressing concerns with the agency's rules. Last month, a joint legislative committee took the director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use Christian Bax to task in person. Budget leaders, including health care appropriations chair Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, also proposed freezing department funds to push regulators to act.

The office has blamed legal and administrative disputes, including fallout from Hurricane Irma, for the slow progress in implementing cannabis for medical use.

Department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri did not comment directly on the withheld funds, but said in a statement that the office has made progress on several rules and regulations, including some on edibles, signage and dosing. The department has also added online payments to streamlined the ID application process, she wrote.

"The department has made – and will continue to make – significant progress in the implementation of Amendment 2 and section 381.986 Florida Statutes, despite the special interests involved in this new industry," she wrote.

Though the $88.7 million budget is now complete, lawmakers must wait through a required 72-hour "cooling-off period" before they can take a vote. The budget then goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature, though he oversees the Department of Health and can veto individual items in the budget.