Flowering cannabis plants grow at Grassroots Vermont, a medicinal cannabis production facility in Brandon, Vt. (Robert Layman / AP)
by Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida and Sun Sentinel
Defending a 2017 law that set regulations for the state’s medical-marijuana industry, Florida Department of Health attorneys have asked an appeals court to overturn a circuit judge’s ruling that they say “injected confusion and uncertainty” into the licensing of marijuana firms.
The closely watched case centers on whether a law passed during a 2017 special legislative session violated a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in October found the 2017 law unconstitutional and issued a temporary injunction requiring state health officials to begin registering the plaintiff, Tampa-based Florigrown, and other medical-marijuana firms to do business.
But in a 41-page brief filed last week at the 1st District Court of Appeal, Department of Health attorneys argued that Dodson’s temporary injunction should be tossed out and that the 2017 law is constitutional in the way it regulates medical-marijuana treatment centers, as marijuana firms are called.
“[The constitutional amendment] provides a framework under which qualifying patients, physicians, caregivers, medical marijuana treatment centers, and the marijuana itself, would be subject to regulation and oversight,” the brief said. “The amendment also expressly provides that the Legislature may enact laws consistent with the amendment. In June 2017, the Legislature did just that when it enacted a broad regulatory scheme implementing the amendment, including regulations for the licensing of medical marijuana treatment centers.”
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“The court is concerned the Constitution is being treated as just a recommendation,” Dodson wrote. “It cannot be. The Constitution is the law of the land — the supreme law of our government, which we must all live by. The medical marijuana amendment of the Constitution is specific. Much of that specificity is being ignored.”
The Department of Health filed the brief last Thursday, two days after the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed to grant a stay of Dodson’s ruling while the case moves forward. The appeals court also said consideration of the case would be “expedited.”
The 2017 law, in part, included caps on the number of medical-marijuana licenses that would be issued by the state and required what is known as 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.
Dodson wrote in the October order that there would be “irreparable harm” if he did not issue the temporary injunction.
“The public interest was clearly stated with the passage of the Constitution’s medical marijuana amendment by over 70 percent of Florida voters,” the judge wrote. “The amendment makes it clear the Department of Health must do the matters required in it to ensure the availability and safe use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients. The department has failed to do so.”
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But in the brief filed last week, Department of Health attorneys pushed back against the idea that the injunction was in the public interest and warned of “confusion and uncertainty” in licensing medical marijuana treatment centers. Currently, 14 firms hold licenses, with 81 dispensing locations across the state, according to the brief.
“[The] public has a strong interest in avoiding the widespread confusion that the order has injected into the MMTC registration process,” the brief said. “Specifically, by ordering the department to begin registering MMTCs without any framework or standards in place, or without specifying what regulatory framework or standards set forth [in state law] would remain in place, the order potentially exposes the public to unqualified parties growing, processing, and dispensing marijuana for medical use completely outside the realm of any regulatory scrutiny or oversight. To state the obvious, that does not serve the public’s interest.”