Christian Bax

State pot czar: No idea when new marijuana operators will be chosen

budOffice of Medical Marijuana Use Executive Director Christian Bax got a friendly reception from a House panel yesterday, even though his office missed a legislatively mandated deadline earlier this month.

Bax’s office was supposed to hand out five new medical marijuana licenses by Oct. 3, including one to a black farmer who met certain requirements.

The deadline was a component of a sweeping measure , designed to implement a voter-approved constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana for a broad swath of patients with debilitating medical conditions, passed by lawmakers during a special session in June.

Bax late last month told legislative leaders his office wouldn’t be able to grant the licenses in time, blaming Hurricane Irma and recent litigation for the delay.

When asked for an update yesterday, Bax couldn’t give the House Health Quality Committee an estimate of when the highly coveted licenses — in what he said could be one of the nation’s “most robust” cannabis markets — will be issued.

“I don’t have a date or date range to give this committee at this time,” Bax said, adding that “the application process has been complicated by the litigation which we are now involved in.”

Bax was referring to a lawsuit filed last month challenging the part of the new law that requires health officials to grant one license to a black farmer who was a member of settled class action lawsuits about federal officials’ lending practices that discriminated against black farmers. Under the law, the black farmer also has to be a member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

But the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the statute, alleging that it is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The association shut down membership after the law passed.

The lawsuit has complicated the process of hiring a vendor to rank applications, Bax said later.

To avoid past problems in the MMJ operator selection process that resulted in lengthy — and expensive — challenges, Bax is outsourcing the scoring of the applications. More than a dozen “subject matter experts” will grade the proposals, using a “blind-testing” method.

Bax issued a request for quotes, but hasn’t selected a vendor yet.

“So, the litigation has complicated the application process. The graders would be intimately involved in that process. As such, the selection of the graders has also been complicated by this recent round of lawsuits, constitutional challenges to the application provision,” Bax told a reporter when asked about the hold up.

“We’re currently reviewing the responses (from potential vendors) that we’ve got. Because it’s a procurement, I’m limited to what I can say about the details of that procurement. The department will be ready with its graders once we have moved forward with accepting the applications,” he said.

Bax couldn’t say when his office would begin accepting applications, something that won’t happen until the vendor is chosen.

Meanwhile, Bax’s office is in negotiations with a vendor to process medical marijuana patient ID cards. The new law also required that the ID cards be privatized.

Patients currently have about a 30-day wait before they get their ID cards, a requirement before they are able to purchase medical marijuana treatments ordered by their doctors.

Some of the delays are caused by incomplete applications for an ID card, Bax said — patients either forget to sign the forms, don’t attach a $75 check to pay for the ID cards, or provide a picture that can’t be used.

Patients are submitting selfies, photos with pets or pictures “with interesting background furniture,” Bax told the panel yesterday.

And that’s not all.

Like other marijuana-related businesses, his office is butting up against the banking world, because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, regarding payment for the ID cards.

“We have ironically run into our own issues of … banking reticence to be involved in this industry,” Bax said. “The system that most other state agencies (and) offices will use to accept online payment will not touch this money because they think it’s related to marijuana.”