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How One Unelected Official Is Obstructing Florida's Access to Medical Marijuana

Currently, the state of Florida is stuck in a legal marijuana quagmire. Why? Because there is one man – just one bureaucrat - who wields the power to deny patients’ access to medical marijuana and has stopped the implementation of the medical marijuana laws that millions of Florida voters passed in 2016. Plans were made, deadlines were set, but so far, very little has happened, since the whole process of handing out licenses for growers of medicinal cannabis has been held-up by this one man.

His name is Christian Bax. He’s not an elected official. He’s the Director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use for the Florida Department of Health. He was considered inexperienced when he took the job. And now, he alone gets to decide when Floridians will get access to their medicine. If the medicine in question were insulin, or antibiotics, what Bax is doing would obviously be cruel and criminally negligent. But since it’s marijuana, somehow the idea that medicine being kept from patients isn’t seen as dire. But it is. It very much is.

In Florida, there’s a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled state senate, and Republican-led state house. It’s a super majority. And it is the Republican lawmakers who have been grilling Bax to find out what exactly the hold-up is. Why won’t Bax award the licenses to the potential cannabis growers? It’s hard to understand since it is state law. But Bax claims he’s bound by legal process.

There was a lawsuit filed on behalf of a black farmer, who, in Florida are ensured by the new state law to be awarded at least one license to grow medicinal marijuana. That legal requirement was in response to two class action lawsuits, referred to as “Pigford cases,” that argued on behalf of the Black Farmers Association that black farmers in Florida had been historically discriminated against. There was an injunction filed against the “Pigford cases” settlement, by an independent black farmer that alleges the process of awarding licenses is unfairly rigged in favor of certain Floridians. Until that lawsuit progresses through the court, all new licenses for medical marijuana growers have been held-up.

This means Bax’s office refuses to issue any licenses to cannabis growers.

Typically, ensuring that a historically underprivileged population be granted access to a new market would be considered a good and right thing to do. But this is Florida, where things are rarely what they seem. In this case, the black farmer lawsuit is being used as an excuse to delay medicinal marijuana instead of a means to correct a historic wrong.

At the moment, there are 13 licensed medical marijuana growers for the entire state of Florida - but here's the catch - only seven are authorized to cultivate and sell product. Six of the 10 additional licenses that were supposed to be awarded by October 3rd have been awarded - but they also haven't been authorized to cultivate and sell product either. Which leaves four new licenses that Bax’s office has yet to even award. These will be the last licenses available until the aforementioned state registry swells to 100,000 patients. Additionally, the growers awarded the last five licenses will not be allowed to cultivate plants until the state registry of doctor-authorized medicinal marijuana patients reaches 100,000 people. Obviously, patients would like to see the ten licenses be awarded to growers, and many growers are jockeying to be awarded one of the remaining licenses, with one of them legally earmarked for a black farmer.

Enter a new lawsuit. The two plaintiffs who filed the suit represent the two sides of the medical marijuana community: growers and patients. Or in economic terms, supply and demand. The name of the co-plaintiffs are Steve Garrison and Michael Bowen.

Michael Bowen is a patient who wants access to his medicine. He’s an epileptic, a patients’ rights advocate, and a political operative in state campaigns. In 2016, he was a senior advisor for the Trump campaign in Florida. He joined this lawsuit to protect the lives of his fellow epileptics. He relies on medical marijuana to control his seizures, now that traditional medicine no longer works.

“Every seizure I get causes brain damage and carries the additional threat of instant death through stroke or cardiac arrest. In cases like mine, medical marijuana is literally the only thing that can control my seizures and keep me alive. But the Florida Department of Health’s inexcusable foot-dragging is keeping patients like me from getting safe, reliable access to these lifesaving treatments.”

Steve Garrison is a grower. He owns and operates Bill’s Nursery, a family business. After he lost his son, a disabled Iraq war veteran, Garrison felt motivated to increase patients’ access to medical marijuana. If he could not save his son, perhaps he could save the children of other Floridians. This is a fatherly response. But his protective instinct, was also honed during his nineteen years in law enforcement. This conservative former chief of police is not who you expect to be suing the state so he can grow pot.

We spoke with Steve Garrison about the lawsuit, the foot-dragging by the state of Florida, and about how his son’s death motivated him to take up this cause. Garrison told Civilized:

“I know marijuana would have been a big benefit to my son. When we lost him it really hit home. You couldn’t believe the cabinet full of drugs the VA gave to my son. He was a disabled combat decorated veteran in Iraq –– two tours over there –– and he couldn’t sleep at night. He just wanted a little comfort. He would take all the drugs. And he couldn’t do the marijuana. He was afraid he would lose his son. He didn’t want to do anything that was illegal. The stuff that was really bad for him was legal. All of these other veterans are standing by, hoping they get some assistance, and the state of Florida is just dragging this on and on. It makes no sense.”

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Obviously, there’s been some major evolution in Garrison’s views if he’s seeking to become a licensed cannabis grower. It’s not every day that you read about a former chief of police who wants to grow pot. When Civilized asked him about how his views now compared to when he was in uniform, Garrison said:

“Listen. Every year, they have conventions for Florida Chiefs of Police Association, and International Chiefs of Police Associations, and I went to some of the conventions and I’ve talked to them. If you talk to the chiefs and sheriffs of America, I would venture to say 80 percent of them will tell you there’s nothing wrong with marijuana. It’s not a problem. My opinion never changed.”

Another interesting wrinkle to this lawsuit, is that both co-plaintiffs, Bowen and Garrison, are Republicans. In fact, Bowen enthusiastically helped get Trump elected. 

Garrison is not happy that the Florida Department of Health is ignoring its obligations under the Florida Constitution and laws set forth by the Legislature.

“In this matter, certainly. Yes. I’m not happy,” Garrison explains, “This was a constitutional amendment. This is America. You can not ignore the United States Constitution, or the Florida state Constitution. 71.3 percent of people voted in favor of this amendment. And they’re ignoring the constitution. You can’t ignore the constitution. It’s not only not right, it’s illegal.”

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The Florida Dept of Health was required to issue the new set of licenses for growers by October 3rd, 2017. That date has come and gone. And they still have not awarded any of the licenses. Which is why Garrison and Bowen sued the state, in order to legally require the state to accept Garrison’s application for a license. The state had until January 2nd, 2018 to respond to their lawsuit.

According to court papers filed by the Department of Health, the state of Florida responded to their lawsuit with a motion to dismiss the case and a motion to consolidate Garrison and Bowen’s lawsuit with the Pigford lawsuit. However, to dismiss the lawsuit would just result in more unaffordable delays and to consolidate the Garrison-Bowen lawsuit with the Pigford lawsuit, doesn’t make much sense. Garrison and Bowen are asking the state to issue the licenses as state law requires them to, while the Pigford lawsuit seeks to block only the Black Farmer-specific licenses. Their goals are consistent and not mutually exclusive. In fact, Garrison-Bowen just filed an objection to the Department’s motion to consolidate where they expressly declared they are not seeking the issuance of the black farmer license now that an injunction against it has been ordered. In light of this information, it could be said that the Department of Health’s motions are mere legal game-playing.

Velvel Freedman of Boies Schiller Flexner represents Bill’s Nursery and Michael Bowen. When reached for comment, he replied: “the Department of Health’s alleged justifications for delaying licenses are ‘ridiculous.’ It is a shame that instead of recognizing they were wrong and immediately issuing the remaining licenses, the Department of Health has instead decided to try and dismiss the case based on highly technical arguments that ignore the serious issues their failure to follow the law is causing. Their challenge will certainly not stop this lawsuit, but it will definitely cause more delay. This delay hurts the marketplace and patients.”

When Ms. Nicole Geary, the General Counsel for the DOH, was questioned by Vice Chair State Senator Kathleen Passidomo about why the Pigford lawsuit would preclude the DOH from issuing licenses, she admitted, “At the moment the problem is twofold. One is an operational is pull the Pigford class litigant completely out. But that piece aside, the department could potentially maneuver through that.”

Vice Chair Senator Passidomo continued with her line of questioning, she asked Geary what the downside would be to awarding the licenses, despite the pending black farmers lawsuit. The best rationale Geary could offer would be the risk of incurred costs to the state, if the licensing process was interrupted by the judge’s decision regarding the Pigford lawsuit. Vice Chair Senator Passidomo seized on this, summarizing, “So there doesn’t seem to be, you’re just talking about additional administrative costs or time constraint costs...that doesn’t seem like a downside to me.”

Currently, patients like Michael Bowen, an epileptic who’s being denied access to his medicine, and potential growers of medicinal marijuana like Steve Garrison, are being denied their lawful right to medicinal marijuana because the state of Florida is worried about “additional administrative costs.” Millions of Floridians voted for access to medicine. But the Department of Health, rather ironically, stands in their way. Bureaucracy is blocking medicine from people who are in pain, who are dying, and who have a legal right to it.

The future of medicinal marijuana in Florida looks to be decided by this case. It’ll be interesting to see if the Republican-led state will ignore the anti-cannabis chatter from Attorney General Sessions, and choose to affirm its citizens’ constitutionally-protected right to their medicine; or if Florida will choose to continue to drag its feet, and allow Christian Bax’s legal game-playing and use of technicalities and judge’s schedules as a series of stumbling blocks to excuse his inaction. Floridians want their medicinal marijuana. How much longer will the threat of “additional administrative costs” for the Department of Health bar them from their medicine?


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