The Florida House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to lift the state’s unpopular—and, detractors argued, unconstitutional—ban on smokable medical cannabis products, following the quick work of the state Senate last week.
The House’s 101-11 vote is the lawmakers’ next-to-last step in a process prompted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the new Republican governor who called on lawmakers in January to pass legislation reversing the state’s no-smoke ban by a March 15 deadline. DeSantis is expected to sign the bill soon.
“I thank the Florida Legislature for taking action on medical marijuana and upholding the will of the voters,” DeSantis tweeted on Wednesday afternoon.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former medical cannabis lobbyist who campaigned on the issue, cheered the news saying, “it’s about damn time.” And John Morgan, the original medical cannabis campaign’s backer who had sued the state over the no-smoke issue, said of DeSantis: “I don’t know about you all but I’m liking this guy so far!”
Florida voters legalized medical cannabis by ballot initiative in 2016. A year later, the legislature passed a bill that instituted the smoking ban and other stringent requirements that cannabis advocates argued drove prices up and made cannabis inaccessible to patients. The Department of Health under previous Republican Gov. Rick Scott was also accused by industry and patient advocates of slow-rolling the new medical cannabis law, while putting up impediments for businesses to get licensed.
DeSantis, who has worked on cannabis issues with his former Florida US House colleague Matt Gaetz as part of his transition team, is expected to be a much friendlier Republican toward cannabis, although the new governor has said he’s against legalizing for adult-use.
Despite DeSantis’s push to end the ban on smokable cannabis, it wasn’t clear at first whether House Republicans would follow his lead. House Speaker Jose R. Oliva, a cigar company owner, told journalists recently, “I’ve been in the smoke business my entire life, and I’ve never heard anyone say it’s good for you.” Also, Florida media reported that House Republicans recently invited anti-cannabis legalization author Alex Berenson to speak to them about the dangers of cannabis use.
Oliva, who supported the measure to lift the ban, SB 182, did not say anything about his vote during the House’s brief debate Wednesday.
Lead House sponsor Ray Rodrigues, a Republican from Pensacola, told the chamber that the House had little choice but to pass the bill because a court or DeSantis would have overturned the ban. Further, he said on the House floor, the legislature was able to put protections into the measure that wouldn’t otherwise exist. For example, the bill sets up a Consortium for Medical Marijuana Research to work with state universities to study the effects of medical cannabis; continues to ban public consumption; bars doctors from recommending smokable cannabis to those 18 and younger, unless they are terminally ill; and calls on the state Board of Medicine and the Board of Osteopathic Medicine to adopt “practice standards” for physicians who recommend smokable cannabis to follow by July 1, 2021, according to the text of the bill.
Rodrigues said on the House floor that he hopes the state does not create a “pill mill” scenario for cannabis, a reference to doctors over-prescribing opioid medication. “What I would say to the medical community is it is incumbent on them to do their jobs, to treat this as medicine,” Rodrigues said. “We know that our doctors are good but every industry has bad actors. My sincere hope is they police themselves.”
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Florida House Democrat from Orlando, told Cannabis Wire in an interview before the vote that the state has a lot of work to do on cannabis reform. He has introduced cannabis decriminalization and adult-use legislation, and said “anything is possible when people look at the facts” when asked if House Republicans or DeSantis will be interested in implementing further reform.
He said of the thousands of Florida residents arrested for cannabis possession every year, “Why? What is the government purpose of diverting resources for law enforcement … to be locking people up for cannabis possession?” he asked. “We have to take a comprehensive approach, and we have to pull Florida out of the dark ages.”