As Patients Suffer, Florida Legislators and Bureaucrats Squabble Over Medical Marijuana

After millions of Floridians voted for medical marijuana and with nearly 75,000 registered patients in the state, the Office of Medical Marijuana Use is still dragging its feet.
After millions of Floridians voted for medical marijuana and with nearly 75,000 registered patients in the state, the Office of Medical Marijuana Use is still dragging its feet. Photo by Mark / Flickr
Florida medical marijuana seems hopelessly mired in bureaucratic gridlock. Monday morning in Tallahassee, legislators on an oversight committee vented their frustration with the Department of Health's Office of Medical Marijuana Use and the man appointed to run it, Christian Bax.

"How this really plays out," explains Sen. Kevin J. Rader, chairman of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, "is that all the entities that have been created that are growing, distributing, and selling medical marijuana, they're scratching their heads because they're unsure of what they need to do."

For Rader, this legislative logjam isn't just political. The senator's own mother is paralyzed from the waist down, and medical marijuana has been a huge help in treating her condition. But she doesn't live in Florida; she primarily resides in Israel, in large part because she can readily receive the treatment she needs there. "In a way, it's very personal to me," Rader says, "because I see firsthand the benefit."

The issue of state regulation remains in limbo. That means many of the patients whose doctors have prescribed this form of treatment to alleviate symptoms from ailments such as cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and PTSD might not be able to get the medicine they need. More than 74,000 patients are listed on Florida's Medical Marijuana Use Registry.

According to Rader, many dispensaries and growers have begun self-regulating. "I don't know in any industry we want medicine to be self-regulated," the senator notes.

The committee has been trying to get Bax's office to work on the rules for the past four months. It sent more than a dozen ten- to 15-page letters beginning October 3, 2017, asking about the emergency rules that would be put in place and receiving no response from the Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

"I am enormously disappointed in the conduct of this department," Rader says. "This is a serious issue across the state. The voters in the state of Florida voted, I believe it was 72 percent. I believe every House and Senate district, 120 in the House, all 40 in the Senate, voted overwhelmingly for this amendment, for medical marijuana use. And we have a division of the executive branch that is ignoring the statutes that we put forth and an amendment that was voted on."

As a response to the department ignoring Rader's committee, the House has added an amendment to its annual budget to potentially defund the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. Says Rader: "They've ignored 15 letters, so [the House] is like, 'Obviously, you don't want to work with us; let's defund you.'"

Bax's office seems to be successfully running out the clock on the issue. The legislative session ends March 9, and after that, there isn't much Rader and his fellow committee members can do. And unless the threat of the House's budgetary amendment and the committee's objections motivate the Office of Medical Marijuana Use to action, it's unclear whether anything can be done after the session ends.

"At the end of the day," Rader says, "this is to try to help hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Floridians get access to medical marijuana for their pain and their medical conditions."
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Travis Cohen is a writer for Miami New Times and covers subjects ranging from arts and architecture to marijuana and monkeys with herpes. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English in 2012 and began working with New Times shortly thereafter. He was born and raised in Miami.

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