Office of Medical Marijuana Use

Good pot cop, bad pot cop?

With all of the tension between the House and Senate, it’s unlikely that there’s a coordinated effort between the chambers regarding the treatment of Florida pot czar Christian Bax.

But it seems there’s a good cop, bad cop thing going on.

After a major spanking by a Senate committee earlier this year, the House Health Quality Subcommittee gave Bax the kid-glove treatment this morning.

And a key member of the panel, Rep. Ralph Massullo even acknowledged it.

“I know you got beat up in the Senate but we try to do things more in the House with martial arts, where the effect is the same but we use less force,” Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who is a doctor, said.

Senators were furious with Bax over delays in issuing new medical marijuana licenses, which Bax, the director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, blamed on pending legal challenges. The Senate Health Quality Committee

“I’m not buying that just because there’s litigation out there you can’t fulfill your statutory duty to issue these additional licenses,” Senate Health Quality Committee Chairwoman Dana Young, a lawyer, scolded Bax during an appearance before her panel last month.

Senate committees have also been frustrated about delays patients are facing in getting their ID cards from Bax’s shop. Patients have to be cleared by Bax’s office before they can obtain the medical marijuana treatment.

The House committee this morning spent a good chunk of time querying Bax about the ID cards, but much more gently than his treatment by its Senate counterpart.

Bax blamed delays in the issuing the ID cards on a couple of things, mostly having to do with paper.

The company that processes electronic payments for the state won’t handle the $75 charge for the ID cards, so patients are forced to pay by check, which takes longer, Bax said.

And there’s a bid war going on regarding the outsourcing of the ID cards. A losing bidder is protesting the Department of Health’s selection of a vendor to process and produce the ID cards. That probably won’t be resolved until February, according to health officials.

Of the 52,000 patients in the medical marijuana registry, about 31,000 have received ID cards. Another 17,000 haven’t applied for one, after being entered into the registry by their doctor, Bax said.

About 4,500 patients are “moving through that process” of applying for a card, he said, eschewing the word “backlog” when asked about it.

Bax said he’s hired 19 new employees and 18 temp workers, and all but three of them are devoted to handling the cards.

“Any time a person has to lay hands on a piece of paper, scan it, sort it, organize it…Anytime that happens, it takes time and resources to do,” he said. “So patients watching at home, please apply on line.”

 

 

RayRod on pot: Speed it up, already

IMG_1190House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who shepherded a major medical marijuana measure through the Legislature earlier this year, said the House shares the frustration expressed by a Senate panel last month about delays in issuing new licenses.

“We appropriated money to the Department of Health to hire more employees because that’s critical for them to accomplish everything we directed them to accomplish,” the Estero Republican told reporters at The Associated Press annual pre-session gathering of reporters and editors Thursday.

He praised Office of Medical Marijuana Use Executive Director Christian Bax’s for hiring “top-level administrators” first and empowering them to “go out and build their own teams.”

“So I don’t disagree with the strategy, but I think the pace could have been quicker. I would like to see it quicker,” he said.

Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Dana Young blasted Bax for blaming delays with the new licenses, legislatively mandated to be issued by Oct. 3, on litigation challenging the constitutionality of the new law.

“I do not agree with the path that they have chosen to take, to say that because there’s a lawsuit that has been filed, we’re not going to issue any of the additional licenses. I think they could move forward on all of the other licenses and lay aside the ones that aren’t in litigation until the court has provided direction,” Rodrigues said. “We would like to see the process move quicker.”

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

Businesses hoping to cash in on Florida’s burgeoning marijuana industry are even more jittery after health officials gave out another marijuana license to a South Florida applicant.

Since the agency granted a license to Homestead-based St. Germain Nursery Farms, there are only four licenses available to new entrants to the state’s marijuana market, according to the Department of Health.

That includes one that’s set aside for a black farmer who meets certain conditions, a provision that’s the subject of the legal challenge.

Health officials have to give preference to the citrus industry in two other licenses, meaning that there’s possibly only one license that doesn’t have any restrictions up for grabs.

Don’t expect any tweaks to the law during the 2018 session that begins in January, at least for now.

“The issue becomes we passed that bill in special session, which was in the summer, and we’re having an early session, which is January. I’m not sure the bill’s actually been implemented for us to determine what we need to go back and tweak yet. So that’s not to say there won’t be anything done. We’ll see if the Senate has an appetite. But I would say our initial position is we would like to see the bill implemented to determine where the weaknesses are that we need to go back and readdress,” Rodrigues said.

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.”