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With Florida’s medical marijuana program continuing to grow as more patients seek approval for marijuana cards, some state lawmakers in the 2022 session are pursuing changes to make it easier to access medical marijuana, raising concerns from some marijuana activists that physicians could be negatively impacted.

The changes could mean everything from allowing patients to get exams to qualify for medical marijuana through telehealth services rather than office visits, and allowing medical marijuana cards to last for two years instead of one.

But a push by some lawmakers to require more regulations on how doctors advertise their medical marijuana practices raised concerns for Regulate Florida, a grassroot organization pushing for legalization of recreational marijuana use.

As it stands now, there are 645,687 active patients eligible for medicinal cannabis, compared to 455,425 in 2020, according to the state health department data. In addition, as of November 2021, the state had received 657,196 applications for medical marijuana cards, compared to 558,711 in 2020.

Christopher Ferguson, director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU), said, “As you can see since 2019, we have seen a steady increase in the amount of applications received as well as patient applications approved, almost doubled,” Ferguson told lawmakers at a public health-related committee this week in the state Capitol.

“That’s just over a 125 percent growth between 2019 and 2021,” he said.

Orlando attorney John Morgan led an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state, resulting in Florida voters approving the Constitutional Amendment in 2016.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan effort that would make several revisions to the state’s medical marijuana program was introduced by Democratic state Rep. Andrew Learned and Republican state Rep. Spencer Roach, on the first day of the 2022 session. Roach represents part of Lee County, while Learned represents part of Hillsborough County.

HB 679 would increase training from a two-hour to six-hour course for qualified physicians ordering marijuana for patients, expand telehealth opportunities for patient examinations, restrict advertising practices for medical marijuana and prohibit the sale of ingestible hemp products to residents younger than 21, among other provisions.

In a phone conversation, Michael Minardi, campaign manager for Regulate Florida, told the Florida Phoenix that the bipartisan legislation on medical marijuana practices “does some good and bad things.”

Specifically, a provision that would revise advertisement rules for qualified physicians could disrupt efforts to bring awareness about their practices related to medical marijuana treatment, Minardi argued.

“That bill does some good things and bad things,” Minardi said. “I think it’s going to have a negative impact on physicians. The advertising aspect will be much more difficult to them.”

HB 679 would implement strict advertising requirements, including prohibiting a qualified physician from engaging “in radio or television advertising or advertising that is visible to members of the public from any street, sidewalk, park, or other public place.”

They would be allowed to utilize internet marketing for their practice but advertisements “may not have any content that specifically targets individuals under the age of 18,” the bill states. And all advertisements must be approved by the state.

“People don’t like how doctors are advertising,” he said. Still, Regulate Florida is pushing for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by launching a campaign event in early February, Minardi added.

For the regulation of hemp products, the bill would require “hemp extract and hemp extract products distributed in the state to be registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.” That agency would be authorized to “analyze a sample” and inspect product labels to “ensure compliance with certain requirements.”

Meanwhile, State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing part of Pinellas County, has introduced legislation that places stricter requirements for medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs) related to licensing and operations.

SB 776 would require the Florida Department of Health to require MMTCs to complete a registration form that expires after a certain period, and MMTCs would need a “separate operating licenses to perform certain operations.”

It would also require the centers “to obtain cultivation licenses and processing licenses” and what’s called a “facility permit before cultivating or processing marijuana in the facility.”

The Florida Department of Health operates the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. OMMU is tasked with developing rules for medical cannabis and overseeing the state’s Medical Marijuana Use Registry, as well as managing licensing for Florida businesses to cultivate and dispense medical marijuana.

Recently, the program has also expanded by allowing its treatment centers to deliver marijuana in the form of smoking and edibles, Ferguson said.

“We’ve seen quite a few enhancements over the past few years. In addition to the marijuana in the form for smoking and edibles as a permissible use, as a route of administration, we have created a physician certification documentation dashboard,” he said.

According to the OMMU, patients are required to submit an application for an ID card to purchase and possess medical marijuana, known as a Medical Marijuana Use Registry identification card. The Medical Marijuana Use Registry is connected to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ database.

In 2019, the approval process for applications on average took about 11 days, but now “with the implementation of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle data, we now can process in about six days,” Ferguson said.

And pretty soon, the process will be shortened even more, allowing applications to be approved the same day, Ferguson added.

“Once we release this new enhancement to the registry using the data, we will be able to same-day approve application cards, allowing patients to then go into the dispensary the same day to obtain their medication,” he said.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Kristen Arrington, a Democrat representing part of Osceola County, addressed concerns about patients losing their marijuana cards and being able to receive replacement cards, saying she “had helped a constituent with the issue and I had to print out the application and then they had to fill it in and then mail it.”

“And it took like a couple of weeks for them to get the replacement,” she said.

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