While over 70 percent of Florida voters approved constitutional Amendment 2 on Nov. 8 to legalize medicinal marijuana, the economic impact of the measure will remain hazy for at least months if not years
The modification to the state’s constitution officially doesn’t take hold until Jan. 3. But there are already six marijuana cultivation operations designated for the different geographic areas of Florida – the closest for the First Coast is in Gainesville – that will handle the growth of the marijuana initially.
State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the state legislature has been preparing for the eventuality of legalized medical marijuana ever since it failed in the 2014 ballot referendum. Bradley was responsible for drafting much of the legislation that provided an interim solution called Charlotte’s Web – or low potency pot – used to provide relief of afflictions suffered mainly by children who have epilepsy or similar conditions.
After passing a legislative act in 2014, the Florida Department of Health in 2015 granted the licenses for the six growing operations for Charlotte’s Web. But Bradley said there have been legislative maneuvers since then to brace the eventual approval of stronger medicinal marijuana.
“As a state, we are prepared to implement Amendment 2,” Bradley said.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the agency declined to comment for this report.
Bradley said that during the last legislative session, state lawmakers approved a measure for people with terminal illnesses to legally purchase higher potency medicinal marijuana, which also meant the six cultivation sites in the state could grow it. Within that legislative action, there’s also a stipulation that allows the state to expand the number of growing operations if the number of registered patients demanding the drug exceeds 250,000.
“What I see Amendment 2 doing is expanding the scope of individuals who are eligible to use medical cannabis,” Bradley said.
If the number of patients exceeds 250,000 anytime soon in 2017, Bradley said he could see the medicinal marijuana growing businesses jump from half a dozen “to nine or 10 in short order under current law.”
In the meantime, after Jan. 3, anyone wanting to purchase medicinal marijuana needs a permission classification order from a physician. There are nearly a dozen specific different medical conditions that qualify for the designation of receiving medicinal pot.
But the wording of the Florida constitutional amendment also allows patients to get medical marijuana who suffer “other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated, and for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
Patients approved for the higher potency pot must either travel to the cultivation center or arrange a home delivery agreement.
Richard Blau an attorney for the Regulated Products Group for the law firm GrayRobinson, said there will eventually be a business impact from the availability of the higher grade marijuana. But it’s not like the drug will be available on street corners or even in pharmacies.
“Whatever the process is, access is still the issue that needs to be resolved,” Blau said.
Blau currently has several clients in the Jacksonville area who are preparing to get into the medical marijuana cultivation industry. But before those clients can take action, the regulations for growing and selling high-potency medical marijuana will still more clarification.
“The legislature has to come together in 2017 and really fill in the details and define the many, many variables that exist within the model of legalization that was provided by Amendment 2,” Blau said.
Some fundamental economic factors still haven’t been hammered out, Blau said. The state will be taxing the medical medical marijuana product, but Blau said it’s not even clear how the taxation will be administered.
“How do you tax it? Is it an ad valorum [property] tax? Is it an excise tax? Is it a sales tax? Is it in fact multiple sales taxes?” Blau said. “Will communities levy additional taxes on top of state taxes the way they do it with alcohol?”
While the higher potency marijuana will soon be available, there’s still the outstanding crop of Charlotte’s Web pot. Blau said there will still be a demand for the low-potency pot because parents of children with afflictions won’t have any interest in higher intoxication levels.
But the prospect of the higher grade marijuana and where it will be sold in dispensaries already has several Florida municipalities instituting or considering moratoriums on selling the drug within city or county limits.
On the First Coast, Orange Park and Green Cove Springs have already instituted one-year moratoriums, while Clay County commissioners are considering a similar measure.
Jacksonville Beach City Council is scheduled to review a proposed one-year moratorium Monday and a final vote is scheduled for Dec. 6.
Surprisingly, even supporters of high-potency medical marijuana are endorsing the moratoriums.
United For Care was the main nonprofit political-action lobbying group that pushed for the passage of Amendment 2 in Florida. Ben Pollara is campaign manager for United For Care and said since there is so much uncertainty surrounding the transition to the legalization of medical marijuana and the financial implications, it’s best that many municipalities take a pause before passing zoning regulations for dispensaries.
“I’m OK with that, so long as the moratorium is at least an opening to having a deliberate, measured conversation about how to do this the right way,” Pollara said. “I’m fine with cities taking a step back.”
Pollara said so many cities and counties in Florida are drafting or enacting moratoriums that his organization can’t keep count. He would only say there’s “a bunch” of moratoriums on the table.
Ultimately, Pollara and Bradley agree distribution centers will eventually be regulated by local governments.
Pollara said if it takes time to hammer out appropriate local regulations for the sale of medical marijuana, eventually it will be more readily available than just through the six growers already running cultivation operations.
“I like to describe them as a cabal. It’s an oligopoly of wealthy businessmen,” Pollara said. “On its face, it doesn’t pass the smell test. …
“The access to medical marijuana for those qualifying patients should be significantly expanded,” Pollara said. “There is a clear mandate for an expansion of access other than what we currently have.”
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