Pubdate: Wed, 20 Sep 2017
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Author: Dara Kam


TALLAHASSEE -- Seemingly learning from past mistakes, state health
officials have issued an emergency rule outlining the application
process for new medical-marijuana vendors seeking to receive licenses
in two weeks.

The new rule, published Wednesday and going into effect immediately,
outsources the evaluation of the applications to "subject
matter experts," requires "blind testing" of the
applications, and includes a detailed application form --- all
departures from the Department of Health's previous medical-marijuana
regulations that spawned a series of legal and administrative challenges.

After voters last fall approved a constitutional amendment that
legalized medical marijuana for potentially hundreds of thousands of
patients with debilitating conditions, the Florida Legislature passed
a law during a June special session requiring health officials to
issue 10 new "medical marijuana treatment center" licenses.

The law gave health officials until Aug. 3 to issue some of the new
licenses, and until Oct. 3 to select five more. More licenses must be
issued once the number of patients in a statewide registry --- now at
37,830 --- reaches 100,000.

Whether the agency will meet next month's deadline is questionable.

"The goal is still Oct. 3," Department of Health spokeswoman Mara 
Gambineri said in an email Wednesday.

But industry insiders remained skeptical.

"It's not just unlikely. It is literally impossible," Ben Pollara, who 
was instrumental in the passage of the constitutional amendment and who 
represents a coalition of medical marijuana businesses, said in a 
telephone interview Wednesday.

The agency is hiring a contractor to supply the subject-matter experts
responsible for scoring the applications. Health officials have not
yet said when they will begin accepting applications or when the
deadline for submissions will be.

Challenges to the rule could also delay the selection of the
applicants, Gambineri acknowledged.

State lawmakers first legalized non-euphoric medical marijuana in
2014, authorizing five nurseries to grow, process and distribute the
cannabis products for patients with severe epilepsy, muscle spasms or
cancer. But implementation of the law was delayed due to legal and
administrative challenges. The Legislature expanded the law last year
to allow vendors to also provide full-strength marijuana for
terminally ill patients.

Because of administrative challenges, the Department of Health issued
two additional licenses to the five spelled out in the 2014 law. After
the Legislature in June passed the new law to carry out the
constitutional amendment, the total number of medical marijuana
vendors in the state is up to 12.

But the upcoming licenses will be the first time the state has opened
up the application process to businesses that did not participate in
the first selection process in 2015, creating intense interest in what
could potentially be one of the most lucrative medical-marijuana
markets in the nation.

Perhaps the biggest change involves how the applications will be
scored and who will rank them.

Under the 2015 process, a three-member panel --- comprised of
Christian Bax, the head of what is now called the Office of Medical
Marijuana Use; his predecessor, Patricia Nelson; and a health
department accountant --- scored applications of nearly two-dozen
potential vendors.

The new process outsources the scoring to 16 "subject matter
experts" in areas including cultivation, processing,
dispensing, compliance and finance.

And, unlike the 2015 scoring system, the identities of the applicants
will be kept secret from the evaluators.

Critics of the old process accused health officials of favoring
applicants who had links to influential lobbyists close to Gov. Rick
Scott and his administration.

In another departure, the health department's new rule includes an
actual application form. The old process laid out detailed guidelines
for what hopeful vendors should include in their applications, some of
which were more than 1,000 pages long.

The new rule limits the numbers of pages allowed in each section of
the application, with a total of 87 pages not including information
related to financials.

And the new rule prohibits applicants from providing additional
information once their applications have been submitted. At least one
rejected applicant complained that the agency permitted some, but not
all, competitors to supplement their proposals when the first round of
licenses were granted.

The rule also incorporates requirements laid out in the new law, which
broadened the types of businesses eligible for licenses.

The old law restricted applicants to nurseries that had been in
business for at least 30 years in Florida and grew 400,000 plants.
Under the new law, businesses that have operated in the state for at
least five years and possess a certificate from the Department of
Agriculture can apply.

The law also requires one of the five licenses to be granted to a
member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association
who was part of class-action lawsuits focused on discriminatory
lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This year's law also includes a controversial element instructing
health officials to give special preference for licenses to applicants
that "own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for
the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or
citrus molasses." Under the rule published Wednesday,
applicants who meet those requirements can earn extra points.

The five-page rule also included an element that took some insiders by
surprise: The department will issue four "contingent
licenses" to runner-up applicants who don't make the October
cut. The "contingent licenses" will go into effect when
the patient registry reaches 100,000.

Marijuana industry representatives reacted favorably to the health
department's latest rule.

"They've proposed a scenario where you have something that
results in greater scoring clarity and a better comparison between the
applicants," said Tallahassee lawyer John Lockwood, who
represents medical marijuana industry clients.

Pollara noted that Florida will soon have 20 medical marijuana

"This is a tremendous victory for the hundreds of thousands of
Floridians who will ultimately need safe, affordable, convenient
access to medical marijuana. It's also great to see the department has
learned from the mistakes of the previous process and taken
significant steps to make the licensing process as fair and
transparent as possible," he said.

But although the new scoring process appears more defined, health
officials can still expect challenges to the rule or the selection of
new vendors, several experts predicted.

"The reality is they can't make everybody happy," Lockwood said.
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