Quietly passed with the controversial 2018 omnibus appropriations package, a $1.3 trillion congressional spending bill, was the Rohrabacher-Leahy Amendment, which restored protection of medical cannabis cultivators from federal prosecution.
The amendment says the U.S. Department of Justice cannot use federal dollars to prosecute state-licensed cannabis cultivators, distributors and licensees operating in compliance with state laws, despite cannabis still being considered a schedule-one drug and illegal on a federal level.
George Scorsis, director and CEO of Toronto-based Liberty Health Sciences, which has slowly started building its medical cannabis empire in Alachua County, said this restored protection is important for an industry that is steadily growing, but also for the patients that benefit from their products.
“We have a high level of comfort that the government will not intervene. It allows us protection to continue to not only invest heavily in our operation, which we are doing, but also ensures that the patient is protected,” Scorsis said, adding the amendment reassures potential investors they’re investing in something that’s protected.
“(The amendment) also makes sure products are being produced and medicine is still available for patients.”
The support for the Rohrabacher-Leahy Amendment from Congress and the White House marks a reverse in federal policy from just a few months ago.
On Jan. 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memorandum, which provided state-licensed cannabis businesses protection from prosecution.
The rescension could have caused disruption in the medical cannabis industry, Scorsis said.
“It really was a question of what would happen if the (Rohrabacher-Leahy) amendment wasn’t passed,” he said. “The feds could have jumped in on state-licensed cultivators.”
The amendment passed despite opposition, specifically by Sessions.
It’s been reported by the Washington Post in a Sessions-written letter to Congress, he wrote it’d be “unwise” for Congress to restrict discretion of the DOJ to fund particulator prosecutions, “particularly in the midst of an [sic] historic drug epidemic and potentially long term uptick in violent crime.”
Scorsis said the restore protection also marks a significant milestone for medical cannabis in the U.S. and signals a positive shift in Washington that could bring about broader medical cannabis policy reforms.
The amendment passed about a month after Liberty Health Sciences, an investor and operator in the medical cannabis market launched in 2011, closed a deal in to purchase 242 Cannabis, a subsidiary of medical cannabis company 242 Cannabis Canada — a deal which included a 387-acre parcel north of Gainesville, southeast of Brooker.
The purchase established Liberty as the key cultivator of cannabis in North Central Florida.
The land purchased by Liberty will become the home of what is called the Liberty 360-degree Innovation Campus, Scorsis said.
The campus — already fitted with about 200,000 square feet of greenhouses and processing facilities — will undergo a retrofit in the coming months, including the construction of a 16,000-square-foot processing area for the extraction and refining of cannabis oils and manufacturing of products for vaporizers, such as preloaded disposable pens, cartridges and pods. A commercial kitchen will also be built for making cannabis edibles.
Upon completion, Liberty’s Alachua County operation is expected to produce about 27,000 pounds of medical cannabis a year and will provide about 150 jobs for the community.
“We’re hoping to become of the largest cultivators in Florida,” Scorsis said.
Another development in the local cannabis industry, a new medical cannabis testing facility under construction in north Gainesville — upon completion — will make Gainesville home to one of the first medical cannabis testing facilities north of Interstate-4, furthering Alachua County’s role in medical cannabis cultivation efforts.
Ryan Hurley, a former UF registered nurse and a patient safety advisor with SMRT Collective, a non-profit that focuses on patient advocacy and philanthropy, said he believes the cannabis industry avoided a “very likely scenario of attempted Department of Justice intrusion.”
“While safe for the moment, we still have miles to go to reach all that could be helped by cannabis,” Hurley said, adding that protections toward financial institutions funding medical cannabis businesses could help grow America’s economy, while helping its suffering people.
″(The amendment) is a good step. Now it is time for brave legislators to do the right thing for our country and end prohibition.”
Florida voters legalized medical cannabis in 2016 with Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, also known as Amendment 2. It remains illegal for recreational use.