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In a closely watched case, an appeals court just agreed to put on hold a circuit judge’s ruling that said Florida lawmakers and the state Department of Health have violated a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The 1st District Court of Appeal approved a stay of the ruling but also said consideration of the underlying issues in the case would be “expedited.” The Florida Department of Health went to the appeals court in October after Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson sided with the Tampa-based firm Florigrown in a battle about how the state is carrying out the constitutional amendment.

Dodson found that a 2017 law was unconstitutional and issued a temporary injunction requiring state health officials to begin registering Florigrown and other medical-marijuana firms to do business. Dodson’s ruling targeted parts of the law that placed caps on the number of medical-marijuana licenses and dealt with issues such as the creation of a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, process and sell medical marijuana — as opposed to businesses being licensed to play different roles in the industry.

The case could open the door to more firms doing business in that broadly legalized medical marijuana.Florida’s fast-growing medical marijuana market. Florigrown, for example, filed the lawsuit after being denied approval by the Department of Health.

In arguing for the stay, Department of Health attorneys this month wrote that allowing Dodson’s order to “take effect injects confusion and uncertainty into the implementation of the medical marijuana amendment and the registration of MMTCs (medical marijuana treatment centers, as the firms are known) throughout Florida,” the filing said. “Under the existing status quo, the department may only grant an MMTC license to an entity after vetting its qualifications. In contrast, under the injunction order, it is unclear how the department would determine which entities are qualified to operate as an MMTC, or if any registration process would exist at all. This is because the department’s authority for establishing such rules … would be gone, nullifying the implementing rules already established by the department.”

But attorneys for Florigrown disputed such arguments.

“Contrary to the department’s assertions, Florigrown produced an abundance of evidence establishing the public harm that is occurring because of the Legislature’s unconstitutional limits on the registration of medical marijuana treatment centers,” the firm’s attorneys said in a brief last week. “It also established that sufficient guidelines already exist to protect the public. The department produced no evidence or testimony to the contrary. All the trial court has done is direct the department to allow the ‘registration’ of MMTCs. Once an MMTC is registered, it must still meet other requirements before it can actually commence operations.”

The Department of Health’s appeal of Dodson’s ruling in October triggered an automatic stay. But Florigrown then returned to Dodson and requested that he vacate the stay — which he did in a Dec. 4 order.

Attorneys for the department then went to the appeals court, essentially asking that the stay be reinstated while the appeal of Dodson’s October ruling moves forward.

The Tallahassee-based appeals court granted that request, saying in a one-page order that “The stay shall remain in effect pending final disposition of the merits of this appeal.”

As is common in such orders, the appeals court did not explain its reasoning. But it also said the appeal will be expedited.

With Florida potentially one of the most-lucrative markets in the country for medical marijuana, disputes about licenses have led to numerous court and administrative fights. More than 71 percent of voters approved the medical-marijuana constitutional amendment in 2016.

In the appeals-court filing this month, the Department of Health said “14 medical-marijuana treatment centers had been registered and licensed and that they operated 72 dispensing locations across the state.”

 

Source: SunSentinel

When Florida lawmakers vote Friday on sweeping legislation expanding access to medical marijuana, they’ll also be approving a sweetener for the state’s citrus industry.

Tucked into the legislation, which establishes a system for patients to buy cannabis, is language that requires the state’s Department of Health to give preferential treatment to companies that promise to convert orange juice factories and other citrus processing facilities into marijuana grow sites.

The reason, lawmakers say, is to replenish Florida’s signature citrus industry. It has struggled to combat the greening that has devastated its crops and shaken the rural communities that depend on groves and the factories that process oranges and grapefruits.

“Why don’t we just take a close look at turning some of those factories into something new where jobs can be created and it can be a Florida business?” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

But just who is that going to benefit? And who demanded it be in the bill? Lawmakers haven’t been clear.

The language appears to favor some major agricultural interests. As they evaluate who to award two of five new competitive licenses to grow and sell pot, health officials would give preference to companies that plan to use facilities “used for the canning, concentrating or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses,” according to a key clause.

That could apply to some of the nation’s largest brands, like Tropicana and Coca-Cola; less recognizable ones such as Louis Dreyfus Citrus and Tampa Juice Service; and sugar companies that grow citrus or produce molasses, such as U.S. Sugar. They would have to apply for a medical marijuana grower’s license and convert their facilities, and it’s not yet clear which companies have interest in doing so. The Florida Citrus Processors Association did not respond to a phone call Thursday.

If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the legislation would give them a major advantage in what will be a hotly contested bid to enter the Florida medical marijuana market, which could generate $1 billion a year in sales by 2019, according to industry analysts.

While the intent with voters that approved legalization of pot was on patient access — 71 percent supported it in November — the citrus carve-out was the latest example of how legislative deals are driven by money and potential profits.

Democrats expressed outrage Thursday, accusing Republicans of cutting a deal to help select special interests.

“It’s clear the language is written to benefit specific groups and specific companies,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “They know who is going to benefit. We don’t. And they are writing a bill that benefits these groups.”

Senators pushed for the language during closed-door negotiations in recent weeks with the House. Asked which member of the Senate wanted it put in the bill, Bradley said the idea came about “organically.” And, he said, it wasn’t done on behalf of any specific companies. “I’m not aware of any specific companies,” Clemens said.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the company has nothing to do with the language.

“Our company has NOT been engaged in any way with any member of the Florida Legislature regarding medical marijuana,” Sanchez said.

He also said that because it is a preference, not a guaranteed license, the department could give zero licenses to a citrus company.

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who was also involved in the negotiations, said he had “no knowledge” of whether any citrus processing companies wanted to enter the medical marijuana industry.

Lawmakers see overlap between citrus and marijuana because both are plants and require agricultural experience to grow them well. That misses the point, though, said Amy Margolis, a lawyer with Florida-based law firm Greenspoon Marder who also founded the Oregon Cannabis Association.

“Language giving preferential treatment refers to the people who turn oranges into juices and jams, not those who grow them,”  Margolis said. “What’s more, cannabis is unique among plants. They’re growing citrus and making it into juice. That has no relation to cannabis cultivation or cannabis processing.”

Some citrus processors make essential oils, she acknowledged, but even those processes are different from creating many cannabis products. Orange juice companies aren’t the only groups that could benefit from lawmakers’ bill. A third license has been reserved for members of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.

The bill also grants a license automatically to five growers who applied under a more limited medical marijuana program established by lawmakers in 2014. They are: Loop’s Nursery and Greenhouses in Northeast Florida; Treadwell Nursery in Central Florida; and 3 Boys Farm, Plants of Ruskin and Sun Bulb Company in Southwest Florida.

 

Source: Miami Herald