By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Animal crackers and gummy bears are off the table, but Florida medical marijuana operators finally will be allowed to manufacture and sell THC-infused cookies, cakes and candies, after state health officials released a rule outlining edible marijuana products.
The emergency rule, posted on the state Department of Health website Wednesday and distributed to industry insiders the same day, requires edible products to be in geometric shapes, bans “icing, sprinkles, or other toppings of any kind” and said the products cannot “bear a reasonable resemblance to commercially available candy.”
The highly anticipated rule came more than three years after state legislators passed a law implementing a 2016 constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana for a broad swath of Floridians.
The new regulations include a prohibition against products that “contain any color additives, whether natural or artificial,” mirroring the state law, and restrict products that “are a primary or bright color.”
The emergency rule also dictates that “edibles shall be produced in a manner to minimize color intensity and other color and visual characteristics attractive to children.”
The 2017 law gave the Department of Health authority to “determine by rule any shapes, forms, and ingredients allowed and prohibited for edibles” to discourage consumption of the products by children. In part, the law said the products may not be “manufactured in the shape of humans, cartoons, or animals; be manufactured in a form that bears any reasonable resemblance to products available for consumption as commercially available candy; or contain any color additives.”
Legislators also endowed state health officials with the ability to issue medical-marijuana emergency rules that can be in effect for years. Emergency rules generally can only be in effect for 90 days.
Under the regular rule-making process, members of the public have an opportunity to submit comments after a rule is proposed and challenge regulations after they are finalized, which can delay implementation. Emergency rules go into effect immediately.
The new rule, which went into effect Thursday, also requires most products to be stamped with a “universal symbol.” The symbol consists of a red diamond with an exclamation point atop the letters “THC,” which represent tetrahydrocannabinol, the euphoria-inducing compound in cannabis.
Despite the restrictions in the rule, operators celebrated its release.
Quincy-based Trulieve Cannabis Corp., the state’s largest medical-marijuana operator, built a 10,000-square-foot commercial-grade kitchen facility in anticipation of the rule.
Edibles will “contribute to a sizable share of overall sales,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers predicted.
“We know the demand is there, as we have been hearing from our customers for some time now,” she said.
At least half of Florida medical-marijuana sales come from flower products used for smoking, Rivers estimated. She expects edibles to take up about 20 percent of the market.
It’s unclear how soon edible products will be on the shelves, however, because health officials have to sign off on cookies, brownies and candies before operators can sell them.
Medical-marijuana operators also need approval from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees food safety and has approved a set of edible-related rules.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s office has authorized four of the state’s medical-marijuana operators — Parallel Florida LLC, Curaleaf, VidaCann and Trulieve — to start manufacturing edible products.
Edibles provide patients another option, Fried told The News Service of Florida.
“Every single patient is different, as far as how their body reacts to this medicine. Some patients can’t swallow pills. Some may have lung cancer and can’t use flower. So, this is another alternative to so many patients who may need their medicine but need it in alternative forms,” she said.
Florida officials are focused on ensuring that children don’t accidentally consume the edible products, Fried, who has been an outspoken backer of medical marijuana, noted.
“Of course, everybody is going to be creative on trying to get different products out there. But the number one priority is making sure that this still is a medicine and that children and people who are not allowed to take it, will not believe that it is not, and take it as a regular candy or gummy,” she said.
The health department’s emergency rule goes further than the state law in trying to discourage children from consuming edibles.
“Chocolates may not contain any caramel, nougat, nuts, fruit, honey, marshmallows, or any such ingredient, toppings, or fillings,” the rule said.
The prohibition against nuts in chocolates and chocolate bars isn’t included in the 2017 law. Under the rule, nuts are allowed in brownies and cookies.
Rivers noted that state health officials will conduct “a full rule-making process” at some point.
“We plan to have discussions with the (health) department around some of those items through public comment during rule making,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It will be interesting to get their rationale. … But overall, we’re just very happy to have rules and to be able to produce products that we know patients have been waiting for.”
The release of the rule is the biggest shakeup in the state’s medical-marijuana industry since lawmakers authorized smokable marijuana last year.
John Lockwood, an attorney who represents several operators and has been deeply involved in the development of pot-related rules, pointed out that the edibles rule was released just as the number of registered medical-marijuana patients in Florida approaches 400,000.
“It’s a thoughtful rule,” Lockwood said. “Obviously, a lot of people would have preferred to have the rule a little sooner, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty good rule.”
Ari Gerstin, a lawyer involved in the marijuana industry, said the rules are “very structured and very specific”
“They’re not overly restrictive. They tried to take things that are successes in other states and bring them here without too much of a shakeup. I was actually pretty pleased,” Gerstin told the News Service. “We have been waiting a long time, but better late than never.”
— News Service assignment manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.