FL: Medical Marijuana Milestone Disputed

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Florida’s medical marijuana program notched a significant milestone last week when the state’s Department of Health reported more than 100,000 patients have enrolled in the Office of Medical Marijuana Use’s (OMMU) registry.

But like everything else associated with the fledgling program, there is confusion about what that actually means.

While some lawmakers are heralding the enrollment increase as a statutory trigger for OMMU to authorize more Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTC) to cultivate, process and dispense medical marijuana to meet the growing demand, the agency is saying enrollment in the registry is not the correct benchmark.

The Florida Department of Health (FDH) issued a statement that, in its view, OMMU must issue more MMTC licenses when the number of patients with “approved ID card applications” tops 100,000.

As of April 20, while the number of patients in the registry was 100,576, those with the number of “approved ID card applications” was 75,208.

Bureaucratic discord has hampered the program since voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 2 in November 2016 to expand medical marijuana access and, while legislators have been growing increasingly frustrated with delays in implementation, they share some of the blame.

Legislators failed during their regular 2017 session to create the rules and regulations necessary to administer a program estimated to generate more than $400 million in sales and $25 million in annual tax revenues while serving nearly a half-million patients by 2021.

Ultimately, Senate Bill 8A was passed during a June 2017 special session. Under the bill, OMMU was to issue 17 licenses for Florida-based MMTCs by October 2017 and then issue four more MTTC licenses for every 100,000 patients with prescriptions from physicians.

But, as of April 20, OMMU has issued only 13 of those first 17 licenses and now, with the registry topping 100,000 patients, legislators are calling upon the agency to step it up.

“Huge demand + restricted supply = higher prices for patients,” tweeted Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford. “It’s time to open the market to more competition. Let’s put patients first!”

Brodeur was among OMMU’s most vociferous critics during the 2018 session, submitting an adopted budget provision that will withhold OMMU Director Christian Bax’s salary beginning July 1 unless the agency can meet its statutory requirements.

OMMU maintains it has been hamstrung by legal challenges and unanticipated regulatory perplexities.

There has, however, been notable improvement in the pace of “approved ID card applications” being issued by the OMMU since the Legislature adjourned on March 9.

According to the OMMU’s weekly updates, there were 85,985 state residents enrolled in the registry and 58,649 who had received ID cards on March 9.

In the six weeks between March 9 and April 20, the agency issued 16,559 ID cards — an average of about 2,760 a week. More than 1,300 Florida physicians are now certified to prescribe medical marijuana that patients can purchase in 34 licensed dispensaries across the state.

But still, legislators insist, pick up the pace.

In a letter this week to Bax, Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, demanded the agency accept the 100,000 registry number as the trigger to issue licenses and begin preparing to issue four more when it tops 200,000 rather than take the allotted six months after the benchmark is achieved to do so.

“Given the indisputable fact that patient demand for medical marijuana is quickly increasing, my strong recommendation is that the Department award the additional four contingent MMTC licenses in the upcoming review cycle to be activated once the number of qualified patients reaches 200,000,” Young wrote.

Despite the fits and starts, Florida is already administering the nation’s third-largest medical cannabis program, behind only California and Michigan, according to Marijuana Policy Project.

And it is expected to quadruple by 2021.

Therefore, Young suggested, “the review for issuance of licenses for the 200,000 patient threshold would be done at the same time as the review for licenses to meet the initial 100,000 threshold” to accelerate licensing.