State health officials are preparing to revamp the application process for medical-marijuana businesses, with the hope of issuing up to seven new licenses before the end of the year, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.
The state Office of Medical Marijuana Use is expected to withdraw a series of proposed rules, which were never finalized, and restart the process with a new set of proposed regulations as early as May.
The start-from-scratch approach is another indication that DeSantis, a Republican who took office in January, is charting a markedly different medical-marijuana course than the much-maligned path adopted by his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott.
DeSantis’ administration on Tuesday settled drawn-out litigation and agreed to award eight new medical marijuana licenses to applicants that lost out on the first round of licensing in 2015. That round was conducted under an initial state law that allowed non-euphoric cannabis, before voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
“Voters overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana as a means to alleviate the pain of those who are suffering. These settlements help move the process forward and will increase patient access as approved by their doctors,” Helen Ferre, DeSantis’ communications director, said in an email.
The settlements this week left three licenses up for grabs, with another four looming on the horizon.
The number of highly sought-after licenses is restricted by a 2017 law that was designed to carry out the constitutional amendment.
Under the 2017 law, health officials were required to issue licenses to applicants that had legal challenges pending as of January 2017 or who had scored within one point of the highest-ranked applicants in five regions of the state during the initial licensing round.
The law also required health officials to issue one license to a black farmer who had been involved in settled class-action lawsuits, known as the “Pigford” cases, about discrimination against black farmers by the federal government.
In addition, the law required health officials to give preference to two applicants with ties to the citrus industry, a move that became the subject of a lawsuit. The state is expected to drop its appeal in the citrus case and allow the application process to move forward, according to the governor’s office.
The 2017 law also set up a schedule for more new licenses to come online as the number of patients who have qualified for medical marijuana increases. Under the law, four more licenses will be available once a patient database total reaches 300,000. With 200,000 patients currently in the database, state health officials predict the database will trigger four new licenses as early as October.
Not counting the black-farmer license, that could mean health officials will have six licenses to hand out by the time legal and administrative challenges, which will almost certainly be filed in response to the new proposed regulations, are resolved. Hundreds of potential operators are expected to apply.
The new application process will create two tracks: one track for the black farmer license and another track for the two licenses that will take into consideration the citrus preference and the four licenses linked to patient numbers.
While applicants with ties to the citrus industry will get a boost, that doesn’t necessarily mean any of them will wind up being granted licenses, the governor’s office stressed Thursday.
Lawmakers, patients and potential vendors seeking to enter Florida’s rapidly growing market had harshly criticized Scott and his administration for delays in carrying out the medical marijuana law, accusing health officials of dragging their feet due to Scott’s opposition to medical marijuana. Health officials, meanwhile, blamed many of the delays on legal and administrative challenges, which frequently resulted in rulings against the state and sent the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, which is part of the Department of Health, back to the drawing board.
In contrast, the DeSantis administration pressured lawmakers into repealing the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana. The governor sided with backers of the amendment and a Tallahassee judge, who said the smoking ban ran afoul of the Constitution.
Tuesday’s settlements with the eight applicants --- which will boost the number of medical marijuana operators in Florida from 14 to 22 --- put an end to drawn-out litigation over the “one-pointer” litigation.
Also, dropping the appeal in the citrus case will be instrumental in allowing the new application process to begin, a move anxiously awaited by investors seeking entry to what could be one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana markets.
The new application process also is expected to address many of the concerns raised over the past two years, including from the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees state agency rules. Late last year, the committee strenuously objected to numerous features of a proposed application. The objections ranged from restrictions on the number of pages in the applications to a provision requiring applicants to describe “good handling practices” related to growing medical marijuana.
News that health officials are moving forward with the rulemaking process received mixed reactions from people trying to join the Sunshine State’s medical cannabis market.
But many prospective vendors are relieved that the new administration will soon take action.
“I welcome the governor’s and department’s efforts to bring clarity to this process so that qualified applicants can get licensed as MMTCs (medical marijuana treatment centers) and, more importantly, affected patients can receive the treatment that they need,” Glenn Burhans, a lawyer who represents Mecca Farms Inc., an applicant who is involved in litigation against the state, told the News Service.