By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Clad in a flannel shirt, jeans and a Florida State University baseball cap, Doug Dixon might easily blend into the crowd almost anywhere in Tallahassee.
But the 59-year-old construction worker wound up at the center of a media frenzy this week, just for taking his medicine.
The soft-spoken Crawfordville man on Thursday became the first Floridian to legally purchase whole-flower cannabis, three days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that did away with the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana.
The monumental moment came more than two years after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized pot as a treatment for patients with a wide variety of debilitating conditions.
Proponents of medical cannabis, including Dixon, believe it’s a healthier and safer alternative to addictive prescription drugs.
Dixon’s become a cannabis cheerleader of sorts: He said he talks up the benefits of medical weed to customers he’s encountered through hurricane repairs.
“I meet a lot of people who are on pills. They’re trying to get off the medication,” Dixon told reporters, after buying a quarter-ounce of smoke at a Tallahassee dispensary.
The news about cannabis is spreading, especially among older Floridians like himself, according to Dixon.
“It’s getting out there. What I do is I try to keep some kind of brochure or card on me, just as an advocate to help people get off medication. Because I know, from personal history, that it will kill you. It will put you in the hospital,” he said.
Even one of his own family members with medical problems is coming around to the possibility of pot as a palliative after witnessing the changes in Dixon before and after prescription pills, Dixon said.
“She’s seen how it’s been when I was on my medication, and now she sees the weight I’ve gained, how happy I am, how active I am. I’m not a zombie anymore. And I’m continuing to work. That’s the biggest thing, being able to work,” he said.
SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM
Quincy-based Trulieve became the first of Florida’s 14 medical marijuana operators to begin selling whole-flower products for use in joints, pipes or bongs. Hours later Thursday, state health officials authorized a second firm, Curaleaf, to start selling smokable marijuana.
Trulieve Chief Executive Officer Kim Rivers and a handful of reporters watched as Dixon purchased “Tru Flower.”
“I smoked back in my 20s, and when I was in my 30s I quit. That’s when I got put on pain pills and muscle relaxers, when I didn’t smoke then. When this came out, it was a good opportunity,” said Dixon, who plans to smoke the whole flower in joints.
Dixon said he didn’t know if he would live to see smokable pot legalized.
“But it is good to see it. It is good to have the alternative. These pharmaceuticals are killing people. I have lost so many family members,” he told reporters.
Rivers, whose company sells more than 60 percent of the medical marijuana purchased by the state’s nearly 200,000 qualified patients, said the sale of whole-flower cannabis — which is cheaper than processed products, such as tinctures — will make medical marijuana affordable for many Floridians who are now financially shut out of the treatment.
“For patients, it is a celebratory day in that folks who have been maybe forced to purchase product illegally, now have a legal and safe option,” she said.
Trulieve’s whole flower costs about $10 per gram, or about $280 per ounce. Under the new law, patients can purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for smoking every 35 days and have a total of four ounces in their possession at any time, if their doctors deem it the proper treatment.
Trulieve will sell whole flower at each of its 26 dispensaries throughout the state, the company said. In other states where medical marijuana has been legalized, smokable products comprise between 40 and 60 percent of sales, according to Rivers.
Although Trulieve was the first to receive approval from the state Department of Health to sell whole flower, other medical marijuana operators are racing to get authorization in an industry that has rapidly expanded since marijuana began being retailed in January 2018.
“We do expect that there will be an increase in the Florida market. I don’t know that we’ll see as much of a shift of current patients, as we will patients who have not been medical patients up to this point, entering the market because they now see a product that they are attracted to and that works for them,” Rivers said.
TOO MANY HOOPS FOR ‘AUTOMATIC’ RESTORATION?
Felons would have to clear up any financial obligations, including court costs, fees and fines, before having their voting rights restored, under a House proposal castigated by critics Tuesday as a modern take on Jim Crow-era poll taxes designed to keep black voters from participating in elections.
In a strict party-line vote following heated testimony, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee signed off on the measure aimed at clarifying parts of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November.
The amendment, which appeared on the ballot as Amendment 4, granted “automatic” restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
While some proponents maintain the measure does not require any legislative action, state and local elections officials, clerks of court, prosecutors and others have asked the Legislature for guidance in interpreting what specific crimes qualify as exceptions and what is required for felons to have completed their sentences.
Under the House plan, felons convicted of first- or second-degree murder or about three dozen sex-related crimes, including cyberstalking, would be excluded from the automatic restoration of rights.
But an even-more controversial part of the House bill (HB 7089) dealing with felons’ financial obligations drew rebukes from civil rights advocates, Democrats and others who claim the plan disenfranchises voters.
“It’s a non-starter for me,” Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who is a lawyer, said, adding he believes “there are efforts being made to purposely misinterpret” the Constitution.
“An overwhelming” number of states deal with restoration of voting rights “with no problem, but we seem to be fumbling around with a basic issue,” Grieco said.
But House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, defended the legislation, saying it follows the language in the constitutional amendment.
“When a petition process leads to a constitutional amendment, we as legislators do not have the luxury, the latitude or the freedom to play the ‘what if’ game, to play the ‘edit the language’ game,” Grant, a lawyer, said.
Grieco and others may be equally unhappy with the Senate version (SB 7086), which adds attempted murder to the list of disqualifying offenses. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee is slated to give the proposal a first hearing Monday.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida patients started buying whole-flower cannabis, days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that did away with the state’s prohibition against smoking medical marijuana.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I don’t want that brand to be changed from the Sunshine State to the melanoma capital of the world.” — Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, after his panel signed off on a budget proposal that would fund Visit Florida but would bar the tourism agency from promoting communities that have banned certain sunscreens.