Florida Bills Broaden Access to Medical, Recreational Pot

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Florida could further broaden access to marijuana under a slew of bills proposed ahead of this year's legislative session that include tweaks to medical cannabis rules and even longshot measures to legalize recreational use.

The bills come alongside a separate move to put recreational use before voters as a state constitutional amendment in 2022, following the success of a ballot measure approving medical marijuana in 2016. The Make It Legal advocacy group says it must collect about 200,000 more signatures; 766,000 are needed to put the issue before voters.

Leaders in the state Legislature, controlled by Republicans for more than two decades, have long been generally opposed to legalizing recreational use, but at least one Republican state senator has sponsored a bill to make it legal for people over 21 to light up for fun. In addition to being in favor of the measure, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a lawmaker from central Florida, said it makes sense to give the Legislature first crack at it.

“My argument has always been that, you know, this should be a legislative matter," he said. “And if the Legislature fails to act, then the people should be able to act to pass it via constitutional amendment.”

More than a dozen bills have been introduced for consideration during the Legislature’s next session, which begins March 2. They fall roughly under three categories: reforming the current medical marijuana system, legalizing recreational use and eliminating criminal penalties for certain marijuana-related offenses.

“This is a coordinated effort to give the Legislature as many options to choose from as possible to legalize cannabis legislatively,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Smith.

Some lawmakers say more research needs to be done to determine the safety and effects of marijuana before they consider broadening access to it. Republican Rep. Thad Altman said he would like to first see U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the drug. Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley warned that marijuana may be the “snake oil of our time.”

One set of bills would reform the medical marijuana system set in motion by the 2016 referendum. The current system has drawn criticism for not allowing enough medical marijuana to get out to those who need it, and for requiring medical marijuana treatment centers to cultivate, process and dispense medical marijuana in-house. Brandes called the current system “essentially a state-sanctioned cartel.”

One group of bills would establish a licensing system for retail medical marijuana facilities and get rid of the in-house requirement by allowing licensed retail facilities to contract with treatment centers. Similar bills would:

— Set up separate licensing for retail, transportation and cultivation of marijuana; establish safety guidelines for those enterprises, and allow municipalities to limit the number of facilities in their jurisdictions.

— Give protections to state employees and job applicants who use medical marijuana.

— Raise limits on how much medical marijuana doctors can issue, and how much some disabled patients can use.

Another group of bills would allow recreational use of marijuana as sought in the planned 2022 ballot initiative and establish rules for licensing and taxing it. These bills would:

— One bill would allow the purchase and use of recreational marijuana for people 21 and older, while not allowing people to grow their own marijuana.

— A separate bill would allow the above plus home-grown marijuana.

The third category of bills — some of which have apparent bipartisan support — would remove some criminal penalties, allow resentencing for some marijuana-related offenses and allow for the suppression of records of some marijuana crimes so the offenses do not overly affect an offender’s lodging or employment opportunities later in life.

“My hope is that we can get people out of jail that shouldn’t be there for such a crime,” Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson said, adding that she also hopes to create a path for “a fruitful life, because we know the stigmas attached.”

These bills would:

— Provide for resentencing, sentencing review and waiving conviction-related fees for same marijuana-related charges.

— Allow alternate sentences for inmates jailed because of marijuana-related crimes.

— Allow some marijuana offenders to expunge their records free of charge.

— Allow some marijuana offenders to expunge their criminal history for a $75 fee.

— Exempt some criminal records from public records requirements.

— Remove mandatory minimum sentences for some marijuana trafficking crimes.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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