medical marijuana
File Photo

In their first full action of the 2019 legislative session, Florida lawmakers — many of them grudgingly — ceded to a demand by Gov. Ron DeSantis and overwhelmingly approved a proposal doing away with the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana.

DeSantis issued an ultimatum to the Legislature shortly after the Republican governor took office in January, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the smoking ban ran afoul of a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The House passed the proposal (SB 182) in a 101-11 vote Wednesday, sending the bill to the governor two days before a March 15 deadline he had set. The Senate passed the bill last week.

The Republican-controlled Legislature included the smoking ban in a 2017 law aimed at implementing the constitutional amendment, which was approved by more than 71 percent of Florida voters in 2016.

Despite DeSantis’ insistence that the ban be repealed, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who sponsored the measure Wednesday and who was instrumental in crafting the 2017 law, noted that “many of us feel like we got it right” the first time.

“I’m not going to have all of your votes today, and I understand that and I respect that. My encouragement to you is to vote your conscience, but what I would say is this: This bill is important because if we do not pass this bill, then the guardrails that we could place around smokable medical marijuana will not exist,” Rodrigues said before Wednesday afternoon’s House vote.

DeSantis conveyed his thanks on Twitter to the Legislature “for taking action on medical marijuana and upholding the will of the voters.”

In the social media post, the governor gave a shout-out to House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, as well as bill sponsors Rodrigues and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, “for their leadership and hard work on this difficult issue.”

The measure awaiting the governor’s signature would allow patients to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for smoking every 35 days, ban smoking of medical marijuana in public places and allow terminally ill children to smoke the treatment, but only if they have a second opinion from a pediatrician.

Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who has made a fortune in the cigar business, had balked at doing away with the marijuana-smoking ban. Supporters of the ban have argued, in part, that smoking is hazardous to people’s health.

But after DeSantis delivered the ultimatum, the House made a series of concessions to reach an accord with the Senate, which historically has taken a less-restrictive approach toward medical marijuana.

For example, a House proposal initially would have restricted medical marijuana dispensaries to selling pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes, along with other cannabis-based products not used for smoking.

Under the compromise passed by both chambers, dispensaries can sell any form of smokable marijuana, and patients can buy devices to smoke cannabis at state-licensed medical marijuana treatment centers or other retail outlets, such as head shops.

The Senate, meanwhile, yielded to the House by agreeing to limits on how much smokable cannabis patients could purchase at one time, as well as a cap on the total amount patients could have.

The proposal, which was quickly sent Wednesday to DeSantis, also requires the state university system’s Board of Governors to designate a university to house a “Consortium for Medical Marijuana Clinical Outcomes Research” and steers $1.5 million each year to fund the research, which would be based on data submitted by doctors.

Oliva, who voted in favor of the bill, told reporters he continues to have concerns about allowing patients to smoke their medicine, which he called “a difficult subject.”

“I don’t know, and we don’t have the data — hopefully we will in the coming years — to show if there truly are benefits to consuming this medicine in this fashion. I personally don’t believe that there probably is. And there might be some detrimental effects as a result of that, which is why I had reservations then, and I still have them now,” he said Wednesday.

But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who once lobbied for the medical marijuana industry and who made medical cannabis the cornerstone of her election campaign last year, called the repeal “long past due.”

“Today’s action to finally allow smokable medical marijuana brings four words to the lips of people across our state: It’s about damn time,” Fried said in a statement. “I’m thankful for the House and Senate’s work to fix this situation and look forward to the governor signing this much-needed legislation into law. It’s long past due that the state of Florida honored the will of the people and allowed doctors to determine their patient’s course of treatment.”