As the Florida House and Senate work through key differences of two competing medical marijuana bills, a pair of questions have emerged as sticking points: the question of expanding the number of licenses available to marijuana dispensaries, and when those new licenses will become available. Lawmakers, bombarded by advocates on both side of the issue, are often relieved when medical marijuana lobbyists come into their offices pitching anything but expansion.
Two of the seven existing license holders say they don’t care what the legislature does, as long as they do it safely and meet the needs of patients.
“We support patient access, first and foremost. We have, and will continue to advocate for patient access locally, statewide and nationally, and access must include access to retail dispensaries,” said Jake Bergmann, founder and CEO of Surterra Holdings. “We are not concerned about the number of licenses and will support anything the legislature chooses to do on that issue and we will continue to support any legislation that puts patients first.”
“GrowHealthy supports accountability for the quality and control of the medication while maximizing patient access,” GrowHealthy CEO Don Clifford says. “The current system provides this and the issue of additional licenses is secondary to our concern that patients have access.”
But the remaining five licensed dispensaries declined to take a public position on the matter.
Under 2014 rules promulgated by Florida’s Office of Compassionate Use, which regulates medical marijuana production and distribution, only seven growers in the state are legally licensed to grow and dispense medical marijuana. This government-mandated vertical integration puts significant constraints on the volume of marijuana grown and dispensed in Florida, with the idea being that state regulators can better control access to marijuana. But the decision to limit licenses to just seven dispensaries has drawn comparisons -fair or not – to a drug cartel, where only a limited number of producers have a virtual monopoly on the medical marijuana market in their respective regions.
In a state where Republican lawmakers have made “picking winners and losers” a dirty word, it’s easy to see why some say the legislature is guilty of having a double standard. A recent opinion editorial in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel made it clear:
Why would free-market Republicans pick just seven companies to control the entire supply chain — from nursery to dispensary — in different regions of the state? Can you imagine if only seven breweries were licensed to sell beer in Florida and had to grow the hops, distill the beverages and distribute the six-packs to stores? What if only seven drug companies could develop and sell prescription drugs in Florida? Think prices are high now? Hold onto your wallets.
Even if the limited license-holder model made sense in 2014, things changed dramatically last November, when Amendment 2 greatly expanded the number of patients in the state who are legally eligible to receive a prescription for medical marijuana.
The Amendment 2 ballot initiative was quarterbacked by Ben Pollara and the 501(c)(4) advocacy arm of the medical marijuana campaign, Florida for Care.
Last fall, Pollara announced the hiring of The Mayernick Group to help lobby for expanded medical marijuana access for patients. But in the past two weeks, just as with five of the existing seven license holders, Pollara has seemingly gone silent on the issue. This has caused open speculation that it’s because some of his financial backers support a limit on the number of dispensaries.
“Pollara has disappeared because some existing operators who give him funding want caps on existing retail locations,” said one lobbyist who declined to go on the record. “His insistence on a perfect bill is holding up what would still be a good bill for patients.”
Pollara fired back, pointing out that he’s not been silent on the matter. “Any lobbyist who has said I’ve ‘disappeared’ on this issue clearly hasn’t been doing their job and showing up at the Capitol. I’ve been at every single committee hearing and spoke in favor of retail caps in Senate HHS Appropriations.”
But with everyone fighting over the number of licenses, who’s trying to make sure patients can actually get what they voted for?