Joint ventures: Money fuels medical marijuana debate

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TALLAHASSEE – Patients, doctors and the Florida public seem to think the medical marijuana story – and path to regulation – is about a misunderstood plant and easing patient suffering.

For businesses, lobbyists and regulators, medical marijuana is just another money-making opportunity. The regulatory process will determine who gets entry into a potentially lucrative industry.

Florida’s seven licensed dispensaries – CHT Medical, The Green Solution, Trulieve, Surterra Therapeutics, Modern Health Concepts, Knox Medical and GrowHealthy – have the state’s top lobbyists on tap.

As seen in the legislative lobbying reports from the last quarter of 2016, The Green Solution paid between $40,000 and $50,000 from October through December 2016 to lobbyist firm Ignite Florida LLC, in addition to having former speaker of the House and former Capitol Insight lobbyist Roy Dean Cannon Jr. (now with GrayRobinson) and GrayRobinson attorney and lobbyist Chris Carmody on the team.

The Green Solution, which runs the San Felasco Nursery, isn’t alone in having multiple lobbyist connections. Surterra Therapeutics (aka Alpha Foliage) was served by The Rubin Group, Ron Book and Michael Corcoran, the current speaker of the House’s brother, in the last quarter of 2016. Compensation is reported in ranges, but taken together, Surterra reportedly paid between $40,000 and $70,000 in late 2016 for the services of these three lobbyists.

In addition to lobbyist payments, dispensaries are dropping dough into legislator PACs.

Action News reports that Friends of Families, the PAC supporting state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, received more than $90,000 from an assortment of the state’s already-licensed dispensaries and their affiliates last year. One of the dispensaries from the opposite end of the state from Bradley’s home district, Costa Farms, contributed $60,000 to the Bradley PAC. Modern Health Concepts, which runs Costa Farms, has the sole dispensing license for Southeast Florida.

Bradley is one of six legislators with a medical marijuana implementation bill up for debate in the Legislature. The other bills come from state Sens. Oscar Braynon III(D-Miami Gardens), Denise Grimsley(R-Lake Placid) Frank Artiles(R-Miami) and Jeff Brandes(R-St. Petersburg) and from House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues.

Floridians tracking the regulatory process might be excused for thinking that they’re being treated to the legislative equivalent of the Goldberg variations. The majority of the legislative proposals, as well as the proposed rules put out by the Department of Health, resemble a mild tweak of the status quo. A greater change is offered by Brandes, whose bill provides for the possibility of greater competition for the existing dispensaries.

Lawyers are also joining the fray. Smaller firms around the state advertise their ability to help Floridians get a license to sell or consume medical marijuana, particularly in the face of still-evolving regulations. In Miami, Feiler Marijuana Law posts that lawyers such as their own play “a critical role in providing legal advice before, during, and after the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida.”

National tier-one law firms like GrayRobinson and Greenspoon Marder have extended their experience in regulated industries into medical marijuana and cannabis law practice groups in Florida and other states. These firms have multiple entry points in the process. For example, GrayRobinson has an active lobbying component to its practice, and Greenspoon Marder announced in February the creation of a nonprofit advocacy group, the Organization for Safe Cannabis Regulation. Gerry Greenspoon, founding partner of the firm, has been personally active in the regulatory debate, even appearing at February’s Department of Health public forum in Fort Lauderdale.

Deep pockets

Newer groups like OSCR are only a small part of the medical marijuana access effort. They join a consortium of big-money interests that are funding the debate from outside of the state. According to a recent report from National Families in Action, medical marijuana debates across the states have been fueled by outside interests.

NFIA particularly singles out billionaires Peter Lewis, George Soros and John Sperling as large individual contributors and as the deep pockets behind some of the more influential marijuana policy reform advocacy groups, such as the Marijuana Policy Project (Lewis) and the Drug Policy Alliance (Soros). Lewis’ legacy lives on through the Marijuana Policy Project, despite his death in 2013.

According to the NFIA’s analysis of the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ Follow the Money project, the three billionaires and their policy groups contributed $1.13 million to the 2016 campaign in favor of Amendment 2’s passage. When combined with the even larger contribution from national personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, that accounts for over 60 percent of the total pro-Amendment 2 campaign expenditures – and more than all opposed groups combined raised.

The report goes further to contend that all of the money spent on medical marijuana initiatives is just a smokescreen for the larger goals of these billionaires, which the NFIA identifies as recreational pot legalization.

Mom and pop pot shops?

Regardless of the vision of out-of-state interest groups, for Florida’s already-licensed dispensaries the best version of Amendment 2 implementation is going to look a lot like the current state of affairs: a vertically-integrated system with limited (if any) opportunities for new businesses to enter.

In a recent op-ed for the Tallahassee Democrat, Dr. Mark Moore wrote that Amendment 2 offered the chance to make medical marijuana a job-building industry for Florida. A Tallahassee-based physician, Moore is the founder of Medcan LLC and serves on the board of trustees for Florida TaxWatch.

Moore told Watchdog he was concerned that allowing the current dispensary giants to maintain their stranglehold on the industry would not only preclude new business opportunities for Floridians, but would also run counter to patient interests.

“It’s been almost three years since the medical cannabis law passed, and still, every week patients complain of problems with availability, shortages and wait-lists,” Moore said. The Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 allowed for low-THC cannabis usage by a small subset of patients with cancer or chronic seizures.

As a physician, Moore worries that the dominance of several large businesses could affect patient access, and he cited an existing lack of oversight as a problem. “[This] is highlighted by the fact that we’ve had patients tell us the dispensary clerk has contradicted the physician orders and recommended something else.”

Moore told Watchdog that a market favorable to competition would be beneficial on many levels.

“The current … system created a cartel of corporate welfare and special interests, whereas an open market of licenses for small local-based businesses, as mandated in Amendment 2, would better serve the citizens of Florida, and could create hundreds of thousands of jobs right now.”

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact her at eclark@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

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