State Politics

State Rep. Greg Steube voices frustration with Florida Department of Health over slow medical marijuana implementation

TALLAHASSEE -- Everything is in place for a strain of medical marijuana to become available to the public -- except for the list of approved dispensing organizations, a blip state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, criticized Tuesday during a presentation to the House Health Quality Subcommittee.

The Florida Department of Health finally began accepting applications for Charlotte's Web dispensaries a few months ago, closing applications July 8.

Charlotte's Web is a strain of noneuphoria-producing marijuana the Legislature

approved in 2014 for treatment of certain diseases. Nichole Geary, general counsel for the Department of Health, said even though the agency is reviewing dispensary applications, she still cannot provide a date for when dispensaries will be approved.

"July 8 is when you got the applications, so it's been three months, and you're still saying you have no idea on some timeline as to when the department will select the five dispensaries out of 28 applications?" said Steube, vice chairman of the subcommittee. "I don't understand why we don't have some way ahead. I mean, it's been two years since this bill has passed, and we still don't have any restitution for these children to get this drug?"

The Department of Health received 28 applications from possible dispensaries throughout Florida, including six in the Southwest Florida area that includes Manatee and Sarasota counties.

There will be five total dispensaries in Florida after the department makes its selections -- one in each region. Originally, the five dispensaries were going to be chosen under a lottery system, but new rules developed by the department and approved in May call for selecting the dispensaries based on scoring specific traits of the possible dispensaries, including financial stability.

"The importance of selecting the right dispensing organization, with the ability to get up to speed quickly and begin cultivating, processing and delivering the product, and delivering a safe and effective product, cannot be overstated," Geary told the subcommittee.

Other aspects of the Charlotte's Web legislation are already running smoothly, according to other presenters. A compassionate use registry functional since December 2014 provides access to doctors, dispensaries, law enforcement, the Department of Health and medical marijuana researchers.

The online registry allows doctors to place orders directly to dispensaries, and law enforcement can look up the specific amount prescribed to someone by name.

Training courses for doctors and prospective medical directors at the dispensaries is also up and running. The eight-hour courses are available to all medical doctors, and 48 physicians in Florida have graduated from the course on prescribing Charlotte's Web, including two in the Manatee-Sarasota area. Thirty Florida doctors have graduated from the medical director course, including seven in the Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee area.

Jeff Scott, general counsel for the Florida Medical Association, said the courses cover guidelines on prescription and dispensing practices as well as on legalities of the drug, since it is still illegal under federal law.

"There's always the possibility that the federal government could decide to enforce this," Scott said.

Steube has filed legislation for the 2016 session to make more strains of low THC, non-smokeable marijuana available for medical use, but members of House leadership have said they want to wait until Charlotte's Web is fully implemented so kinks could be worked out of that system.

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby