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Saturday, Nov 01, 2014
Politics

Medical pot backers, foes in Florida eye potential rules

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2014 at 08:34 AM

TAMPA ­­— On the boardwalk in Venice Beach, Calif., medical-­marijuana hawkers wearing green uniforms and hoisting bright-green leaf signs call out to passing crowds.

They advertise doctors who, for a price — usually $40 — will provide the legally required physician recommendation to buy marijuana after a cursory exam.

A pot shop is usually conveniently located just a few steps from the doctor’s storefront. “Pot shop docs” even show up at rock concerts.

It’s a scene from the “wild west of weed,” as even advocates of medical marijuana — such as Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance — call the evolution of the practice since its legalization in California in 1996.

It’s a scenario that backers of a Florida constitutional amendment have worked to avoid.

“I don’t think anybody wants us to be like California, with pot shops on every corner,” said Ben Pollara, amendment campaign manager for United for Care. “They got to that state because nobody regulates them.”

The amendment on Florida’s November ballot would lead to “a pretty strict set of rules and regulations” covering production and sales of marijuana and who can use it, he said.

Florida advocates envision carefully controlled growing operations selling products to state-licensed clinics permitted under local zoning laws.

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The customers, possibly 400,000 of them or more, would be victims of serious illness and referred as part of normal doctor-patient relationships.

Pollara also forecast “a pretty robust commercial enterprise.”

Business people in Tampa and elsewhere are already laying the groundwork for marijuana-related commerce.

How that industry will work is anyone’s guess. It would depend on regulations and laws the state Department of Health and Florida Legislature would enact.

In Colorado, the industry produced $9.1 million in sales taxes alone on $329 million in sales in the year ending last June.

Advocates say Florida’s industry would differ from those in two of the states with the longest histories of medical-marijuana sales: California and Colorado.

Both started with nearly unregulated industries. For years, political and legal hassles prevented adoption of regulatory schemes. Colorado finally adopted one in 2010.

In California, what Lyman called the mess the industry created has finally brought the conflicting sides to the table over legislation that could pass soon.

Those sides include the state’s League of Cities and Police Chiefs Association, which previously have refused to back any statewide regulations.

Florida appears to have learned from California’s and Colorado’s mistakes, said Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for medical-marijuana measures.

She blamed political perception in part for California’s failure to pass a regulation scheme. Conservatives “are afraid to vote yes on anything that has marijuana in it.”

With no state regulations, some California cities have banned pot shops and don’t want to give up their authority to do so, said David Bejarano, chief of the Chula Vista Police Department and vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

Bejarano hasn’t studied the Florida amendment, but after hearing a description of it, said: “It seems like a step in the right direction. It goes way beyond what is occurring here in California.”

Opponents in Florida aren’t reassured about the Florida amendment’s regulatory scheme.

“You could drive a Mack truck through it,” said Carlton Turner of St. Petersburg, formerly top drug policy adviser in the Reagan White House.

Repeating arguments other opponents frequently make, he said the amendment doesn’t include an age requirement or description of the physician-patient relationship required.

Turner also sees as a negative that the amendment doesn’t specify medical conditions — “any condition that the physician believes the use of marijuana might have some benefit and outweigh the potential harm to the patient,” he said.

Proponents say a regulatory framework required under the amendment would answer those objections.

The Florida amendment doesn’t rule out marijuana for minors, said California Drug Policy Alliance lawyer Tamar Todd — who helped write it — because “no medicine should be prohibited for young people who have diseases that require it.”

Many of those who need marijuana are children, particularly those with forms of epilepsy that cause life-threatening spasms, she said.

In general, parental consent is required for medical care for minors in Florida, according to a 2006 Florida Bar Journal article by Ann Bittinger, a Jacksonville lawyer specializing in health care law.

Todd said its’ up to health care regulators such as the Florida Board of Medicine to enforce standards of practice for doctors, including standards on marijuana for children.

But Todd acknowledged that in California, medical authorities appear to have failed to regulate the activities of “pot shop docs.”

The Florida amendment says the state Department of Health would have 60 days from the effective date, Jan. 6, 2015, to adopt rules governing:

♦ Issuing identification cards to patients authorized to obtain marijuana and to caregivers who may assist up to five patients in obtaining marijuana.

♦ Registering treatment centers to dispense marijuana, including standards for security, record keeping, testing, labeling and inspection.

♦Defining how much marijuana a patient needs, a limit the patient could challenge.

Within 90 days, the department would have to begin issuing the ID cards and registrations.

In addition, the amendment also authorizes the Legislature to enact regulations.

“I absolutely expect legislative action,” Pollara said, possibly to impose taxes or define the term “physician. I’m sure they’ll want to have some input.”

Until those regulations and laws are adopted, he said, there’s no way to answer such questions as how many treatment centers there would be, what the qualifications for growing marijuana or operating a treatment center would be, or how quality control on products would work.

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Approaches vary among states with legal medical marijuana.

Colorado, for example, requires for quality control purposes that all marijuana growers also own dispensaries and that dispensaries produce 70 percent of the products they sell.

Colorado also requires that dispensary operators and investors undergo extensive criminal history checks and be free of government or child support debt.

Massachusetts requires that all dispensary operators have at least $500,000 in liquid capital, said Taylor West of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Michael Mayes of Quantum 9, a Chicago-based consulting firm that advises marijuana producers, said some states seek to regulate marijuana the same way as alcohol, in which producers, distributors and retailers generally are kept separate, known as horizontal integration, while others use vertical integration, requiring a single firm to produce and distribute.

Florida’s amendment leaves such questions to state government.

The uncertainty hasn’t stopped at least some Floridians who want to get in on the ground floor of potential marijuana operations.

In Pembroke Park, a city built largely on the nursery business, at least one grower has made what Town Manager Bob Levy considers a serious inquiry about setting up a marijuana growing operation.

“We have lots of 10-acre plots and nursery ordinances on the books,” Levy said.

Mayes has had numerous inquiries from prospective Florida clients.

“Florida is going to be huge because there’s such a high concentration of the patient population,” meaning seniors, he said.

In West Palm Beach, a publisher who formerly worked for marijuana-oriented High Times magazine is advertising a $400 all-day seminar Saturday “for everyone who plans to participate in Florida’s future legal cannabis industry” to “meet the experts” on legal and medical aspects of legalized marijuana.

The most significant effort so far may be in Tampa, where entrepreneur Jeremy Bufford has set up Medical Marijuana Tampa with a staff of about a dozen that teaches classes in cultivation and plans to set up a chain of local clinics.

“It’s all speculative right now depending on the regulations, but we have contingency plans,” said Cliff Burt, who teaches classes. “We want to build a grower network and promote a brand.”

wmarch@tampatrib.com

813-259-7761

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