Last month, Tampa-based strip club pioneer Joe Redner successfully sued the state for the right to grow his own medical marijuana. Now Redner is turning his sights onto a larger fight to undo Florida's hilariously restrictive licensing rules, which have allowed only a handful of politically connected companies into the game.
Redner's attorneys, who have been fighting to undue the regulations since late last year, recently filed new statements from more than a dozen patients who say the rules adopted by Tallahassee last June are preventing them from getting medicine when they need it thanks to a "blatantly unconstitutional legislative scheme."
"The local dispensary regularly runs out of his medication for significant periods of time," writes a woman named Latoya, who cares for a man with grand mal seizures. "Purchasing medical marijuana from (licensed clinics) has been very difficult for me and my family because there are so few registered."
Redner is already a local legend in Tampa. As the owner of Mons Venus strip club, he is credited with inventing the nude lap dance — an innovation that sparked the decades of mostly victorious legal fights he waged against the city in court. Redner narrowly lost a race for city council and used some of his legal winnings to help his son start Cigar City Brewing, among Florida's premier craft brewers.
In 2011, the then-71-year-old Redner was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He beat the disease and credits medical marijuana in part for his success, which led him to sue the state for the right to grow his own herb at home.
Although Florida voters backed Amendment 2 to legalize medical marijuana by more than 70 percent in 2016, Florida legislators dragged their feet for months on creating rules for the new industry and then passed a heavily restrictive set of laws last June. Redner first took them to court to fight for his right to grow his own herb. He told a local TV station that forbidding patients from growing the plant hurts poor Floridians with serious illnesses.
"There's a lot of people in this state that are poor and can't afford medical marijuana at the prices on the market right now," Redner said. "They cannot afford it."
A Leon County judge sided with the 77-year-old strip club owner in early April and slammed the state, writing that the Department of Health "continues to be non-compliant with the Florida constitutional requirements." But that ruling applied only to Redner, and the state quickly appealed, putting his right to grow pot on hold in the meantime.
Now Redner's attorneys are focused on an even broader battle against Florida's restrictive medical marijuana laws with a new filing first reported on by the Sun Sentinel's Dan Sweeney. In its June 2017 rules, Tallahassee essentially granted only ten companies the right to grow and sell medical weed in the state. Those licenses, of course, ended up in the hands of heavily politically tied firms that spent more than $1.5 million on lobbying last year.
Redner has his own company that wants to provide medical marijuana, Florigrown LLC. Last January, his company applied for a license and, according to his attorneys, met every state requirement for financial structure, medical supervision, and security. But the state quickly denied both his application and his appeal.
Redner's attorneys first sued the Department of Health in Leon County in December, but the state has yet to provide much of the discovery they've requested, says Ari Gerstin, Redner's Miami-based attorney.
In the suit, Redner argues that state's entire licensing scheme is designed to keep the burgeoning multimillion-dollar industry in the hands of only a few companies — a violation of the amendment that sought to create an open marketplace for the drug. Just 13 licenses have been granted to date, and the state will hand out only 37 by 2020, Redner's attorneys say, yet there are no restrictions on how much marijuana those companies can grow or sell.
"They have no concern with how much marijuana is produced or how many store-fronts sell it, as long as it all remains in the hands of this small group of licensees," his attorneys write.
In the end, Florida's voters did not give the Legislature the right to limit medical marijuana to a tiny number of companies, Redner argues.
"Fundamentally, nothing in the Amendment authorizes the Defendants to promulgate laws and rules that impose an artificial cap on the number of [clinics] that may operate in the state," they write in the suit.
Yesterday, Redner's attorneys filed a new 204-page amended complaint in Leon Court that includes numerous new statements from caregivers like Latoya who say the state's rules have prevented them from getting needed medicine.
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"(Clinics) running out of stock has been a constant problem for me," writes one veteran who uses the drug to treat PTSD and insomnia.
Gerstin says Redner's victory in court on the issue of growing his own plants isn't likely to directly affect his larger fight against the marijuana registration system — but it does show that judges have recognized the problems with that system.
"The judge in that case found that the state was clearly violating Amendment 2," Gerstin says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported when Redner's attorneys first filed suit against the Department of Health.