The decision upbraids legislature and health department officials for obstructing patient access.
Following Governor Ron DeSantis' efforts to get the Florida legislature to lift its ban on smokable marijuana, the state is facing another challenge to laws limiting its medical marijuana program. For the second time, a circuit judge has challenged a 2017 Florida law that placed a cap on the number of dispensaries that are allowed to open.
Both the smokable cannabis ban and dispensary cap were created in a 2017 law that looked to regulate Amendment 2, Florida's Medical Marijuana Legalization measure, which passed with the support of more than 71 percent of voters in 2016.
On Feb. 2, Karen Gievers, Leon County's Circuit Judge, definitively sided with the state's largest chain of dispensaries: Trulieve. Gievers upbraided the state legislature and Florida health officials for ignoring the voters' will and limiting patients' access to medical cannabis.
The state's health department suggests that the dispensary cap works to avoid over-saturation of the medical marijuana market. But Judge Gievers ruled out that theory. "Handicapping existing, performing, competitive businesses to help less competitive businesses, at the expense of consumer efficiency and choice, is not rationally related to a legitimate public purpose," she wrote.
Republican Governor DeSantis' push to legalize smokable cannabis made headlines last month after giving legislators until March 15 to correct what the governor believes is an inappropriate ban. But by Monday, that piece of legislation, SB 182, had been considerably weakened. Gayle Harrell, the Senate's chairperson of its health policy committee, altered the proposed bill to legalize smokable herb in specific instances where it's been determined as the only form of cannabis that can treat a patient's health condition.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that Harrell called her alterations "common-sense safety measures," and "guardrails" to keep patients under safe care.
Changes imposed on the proposal would also make it mandatory for patients to schedule three doctor's visits to get their meds, none of which are covered by health insurance. In addition to the first mandated visit, Harrell's changes would require patients to get a second opinion on the recommendation to smoke pot from a doctor who's not state-certified to supply patients with cannabis. Then they would be required to go back to the original doctor to get their medication.
Not all legislators were happy with the alterations. "I understand that patients right now would be better off with no bill than with this bill," said St. Petersburg Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican and sponsor of SB 182.
In regards to the dispensary cap, Judge Gievers ordered the legislature and health department authorities to permit Trulieve to expand to 34 dispensaries state-wide, and to put a halt to the dispensary ban.
In her ruling, Gievers wrote that the cap "erects barriers that needlessly increase patients' costs, risks, and inconvenience, delay access to products, and reduce patients' practical choice, information, privacy and safety."
This article first appeared in High Times.
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Clarice, a Melbourne-based writer, began her career covering the technology industry and now writes, edits and interviews subject matter experts in the Cannabis Industry.