Florida voted for medical marijuana — but it could be illegal to smoke it

A hand holding a medical marijuana joint

Last November, Florida voters passed Amendment 2, a measure to expand access to medical marijuana. Pro-weed forces won big, with 71% in favor.

But Republican politicians in the Sunshine State aren't as keen on pot as their constituents. In fact, they're actively sniffing out ways to subvert the clear intent of the new law. Because Amendment 2 also empowered legislators to create a regulatory system for marijuana — which would, remember, only be available to patients with debilitating medical conditions — they've taken it upon themselves to push extreme, almost baffling limits on usage and access. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In a new bill proposed this year, the Florida Senate tried to forbid "use, or administration of marijuana in a form for smoking or vaping or in the form of commercially produced food items made with marijuana or marijuana oils," which rules out pretty much all the ways people typically consume marijuana: smoking, vaporizing and eating. (Terminally ill patients were granted an exception here, but only to vape.) These weed rules were in fact more restrictive than what Florida had on the books prior to Amendment 2.  

Lawmakers have since tweaked that language, but not by much: The ban on smoking marijuana became the basis for a compromise between Florida's House and Senate committees. The revised bill, HB 1397, which does allow the sale and consumption of edible and vapable marijuana products, passed by a lopsided vote of 105-9 in the House on May 2. 

The Tampa Bay Times reported that a few Democrats in the chamber protested the anti-smoking provision. "Last time I checked, Florida was the Sunshine State not a nanny state," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who represents District 49 in Florida. "Who are we to tell legitimate patients they cannot smoke their cannabis? That’s not our business."  

"Last time I checked, Florida was the Sunshine State not a nanny state. Who are we to tell legitimate patients they cannot smoke their cannabis? That’s not our business." — Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, District 49

Apart from the continued resistance to smoking, marijuana advocates have complained about HB 1397's permit system: It grants just seven grow licenses for the whole state, effectively guaranteeing a "legal pot cartel" that will have the ability to fix prices. The bill also requires that doctors write prescriptions for medical marijuana rather than the "recommendations" most states ask for — the problem being that because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug and prohibited at the federal level, any doctor who prescribes it can lose their FDA license. Both policies are poised to make medical marijuana more expensive, more dangerous and more difficult to obtain for gravely ill patients.

The reasoning behind these maneuvers and obstacles isn't even particularly sound. Florida Republicans have repeatedly voiced concern that the feds could crack down on the program if its regulations are seen as too lax. “We have to make [marijuana] legal and available to Florida residents," House GOP leader Ray Rodrigues has said, "but we have to do it in such a way that it complies to the guidance we’ve been given by the federal government.” 

Mark Wallheiser/AP

Which is pretty much impossible, given that weed in any form is still illegal under federal law. The DEA doesn't care how you use it — the drug. Besides, lawmakers in Washington are working to prevent such meddling: On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved an omnibus budget bill with a provision that explicitly bars the Justice Department, led by a staunchly anti-weed attorney general, from spending a single dollar on efforts to disrupt state marijuana programs, including Florida's. The House passed the bill on Wednesday, and now President Donald Trump is expected to sign it

Without that argument to prop up their anti-smoking revision, Florida legislators are stuck debating health risks. "There is agreement between the majority of the House and Senate that the smoking of cannabis is not an act that is consistent with a healthy life and not consistent with consuming medicine," said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican representing Fleming Island.

Yet that line of thinking is suspect as well: Marijuana edibles have a much stronger effect than smoking, their effects are less immediate, and they’re harder to properly dose — all of which suggests they're not always the right alternative for patients. And while smoking can certainly harm your lungs (although not as badly as cigarettes will), the hard evidence on marijuana’s overall negative effects is either mixed or nonexistent.

Meanwhile, the drawbacks and pitfalls of legal pharmaceuticals — including prescription painkillers that directly lead to thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year — are well-documented. In a country where we give kids asthma tablets that may cause suicidal thoughts, it seems strange to feign worry over a chemo patient catching bronchitis because they happen to smoke anti-nausea, pain-relieving, mood-elevating medicine.

With just hours left in the legislative session, the Florida Senate passed a version of the House measure, amending it to change (among other things) the number of licensed dispensaries. They kept the smoking ban. The House sent back their own late tweaks, but ultimately, the two chambers couldn't agree on the dispensary issue — and no medical marijuana implementation bill made it out of the legislature in time. It now falls to the Florida Department of Health, which operates under anti-marijuana Gov. Rick Scott, to set the program's rules by July, and these could be stricter than those outlined in the legislature's bills. 

Joe Reedy/AP

Already, lawyer John Morgan — who heavily bankrolled the effort to pass the medical marijuana law in November — has threatened to sue the state, since Amendment 2 requires the legislature to put those rules in place themselves. Yet even if they'd managed to do so, Floridians would have gotten a complicated, unfair and largely gutted version of the program they voted for, something that would've likely prompted a similar lawsuit. For now, medical pot advocates are demanding a special session to hash out the bill. 

Morgan could also benefit from all this infighting, said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, when the legislative session timed out with no agreement on weed regulation. "Because his main theme, if he decides to run for governor, is that the legislature is full of politicians who cannot be trusted that disrespect the will of the voters," Smith mused. "And he's right." 

The GOP, as they say, will have to stick that in their pipe and smoke it.