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DeSantis Poised To Make Marijuana Changes

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announces funding for his environmental policy during a press conference at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. (Dan Wagner/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announces funding for his environmental policy during a press conference at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. (Dan Wagner/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)

With one of his chief advisers tweeting the hashtag “NoSmokeIsAJoke,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday he will “very soon” announce changes in how the state is carrying out a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

DeSantis, a Republican, said many voters believe the state has been “foot dragging” in implementing the amendment, largely bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan and approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016.

The new governor and his lieutenants have indicated DeSantis intends to abandon an appeal of a court decision that said a ban on smoking medical marijuana violates the constitutional amendment. Former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration appealed the decision to the 1st District Court of Appeal, which heard arguments in the case Tuesday, the same day DeSantis was sworn into office.

Appearing Monday at a press conference in Miami-Dade County to name Judge Robert J. Luck to the Florida Supreme Court, DeSantis said his medical-marijuana announcement will deal not only with “the litigation” but also with “legislation that I think is needed to implement the people’s will.”

The smoking ban was included in a 2017 law that was aimed at carrying out the constitutional amendment. The law also capped the number of medical-marijuana licenses and the number of dispensaries in the state. Court decisions in other lawsuits also ruled those limitations were in conflict with the amendment.

Echoing remarks he made while campaigning for governor last year, DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate who also attended Yale University, indicated the state has not properly implemented the constitutional change.

“I think a lot of voters were frustrated that they don’t think that it has been. They think there’s been a lot of foot-dragging. So my job is, when the people speak, you have to listen. This was not an amendment that was really that close. It was like 72 percent,” he told reporters when asked about the lawsuit involving the smoking ban.

DeSantis said he wants to make sure the amendment is carried out “in a way for the folks that voted for it that they can feel that that’s what they voted for.”

“And I think a lot of ‘em don’t feel that way right now. So we’ll see some changes,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican who was instrumental in the passage of Florida’s initial medical-marijuana laws and has been an outspoken proponent of medical marijuana, is one of DeSantis’ top transition advisers.

“I personally think the fight over smoking is silly. I also know Gov. DeSantis to feel duty-bound to execute the will of the people,” Gaetz said in a text Monday.

Morgan said he was encouraged by the new governor’s comments.

“The governor believes that the will of the people is important and understands that smoke was in the articles of intent. It appears he will end the wasteful spending of taxpayers’ dollars in this lawsuit and let patients receive all forms of mj (marijuana),” Morgan said in an email.

The shifting stance on medical marijuana isn’t isolated to the governor’s office.

Days after taking office, new Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who previously lobbied for medical marijuana operators, created a “director of cannabis” position within her department.

And lawmakers may be prepared to take action.

Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who was one of the architects of Florida’s marijuana laws, told The News Service of Florida this month it will be a priority for the state “to have a culture of excellence that focuses on patient access and safety.”

Bradley praised Florida law for requiring research and data collection --- which he called “the best in the country” --- and for having dispensaries that function as “medical centers rather than head shops.”

But he expressed disappointment that health officials have yet to establish regulations to allow medical-marijuana operators to manufacture and sell edible marijuana products.

“We’re not where we need to be. There needs to be more licenses. What that looks like is an important discussion to have. Whether that happens through the Legislature or through the courts remains to be seen,” he said.

Lawmakers aren’t likely to put up a fight if DeSantis drops the appeal regarding the smoking ban, Bradley said. The prohibition was included in the law based on feedback from medical experts about the dangers of smoking.

Bradley said “it’s starting to have the feel of an issue we sort of need to have behind us and move on. … It was done for good, solid policy reasons but if (DeSantis) decides to move in a different direction on the issue, I certainly respect and understand that.”

Dropping the appeal could come as early as this week, based on a social-media post by Gaetz.

On Saturday, Gaetz said in a tweet he was looking forward to seeing Morgan “next week,” using the hashtags #NoSmokeIsaJoke, popularized by Morgan and others who unsuccessfully pushed Scott to drop the appeal, and #PotDaddy, referring to Morgan.

“Air Morgan is fueled and ready to fly,” Morgan, a longtime fundraiser for Democratic candidates, replied, repeating the same hashtags. “#PotDaddy is looking forward to seeing his favorite Republican, other than my wife!! Let the people speak and be heard.”

Ditching the appeal would be in keeping with the political muscle DeSantis has flexed since taking office last week. Since Tuesday, the Republican governor has appointed two Florida Supreme Court justices, suspended two elected officials --- including embattled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel --- and unleashed sweeping plans to address the state’s water woes.

Morgan said Monday he is encouraged by DeSantis’ “commitment to the environment and science.”

“This guy is very smart. Harvard and Yale. While we as citizens can disagree on some issues, we can agree on many more,” he said.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.