- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Dec. 19

The Ledger of Lakeland on state’s medical marijuana industry:

Florida’s nascent medical marijuana industry has yet to even make its first sale, but it’s already run into problems. Launching the industry - a total of five vendors spread across the state - is already a year behind schedule because of legal challenges. Then, earlier this week a baker’s dozen of companies whose license applications were denied by the Florida Department of Health have challenged their respective rulings, a volume that caught state health officials off guard.

Polk County’s contender makes a compelling case that the DOH fumbled its petition. Badly.

GrowHealthy, which has partnered with McCrory’s Sunny Hill Nursery in Eustis, sought to serve the state’s 14-county Central Florida region with an operation based in a 185-000-square-foot former Sealy mattress factory in Lake Wales. Last month, however, the company finished as runner-up to Knox Nursery in Winter Garden by a minute margin - losing by 0.0041 points.

GrowHealthy is now contesting the denial, citing several factors, with the aid of a high-powered Tallahassee law firm, Greenberg Traurig. GrowHealthy asserts that the Health Department’s three-judge panel erred in tallying up the scores - literally in one instance. On the most basic level, the firm maintains that health officials underscored its partner on one criteria by one point, which by itself would have propelled GrowHealthy past Knox.

But GrowHealthy also argues that the Health Department overlooked some glaring holes in its competitor’s application.

For example, according to GrowHealthy’s appeal, Knox’s security director had not passed a mandatory background check, nor had its medical director finished a required education program. The company also failed to prove that it had the correct zoning for its facility, and Knox Nursery LLC, the name of the applicant, has not been authorized to conduct business within Florida. GrowHealthy further argues that Knox did not meet the deadline to put up a required $5 million performance bond.

Moreover, a Health Department spokeswoman told The Ledger that the application process did not require on-site inspections of the production facilities.

Is this any way to run a drug industry?

The issues raised by GrowHealthy are not rocket science. They are fundamental aspects of due diligence that the Health Department should have watched closely, but failed miserably. Who, for instance, would license someone to produce pot-related pharmaceuticals, even if they are low in THC, marijuana’s euphoric-producing chemical, without ensuring they had appropriate security, or a director who could pass a background check? Well, the state of Florida, it seems.

Medical marijuana, even the low-THC-dose variety, already makes many people suspicious. Granting a license after such a flawed application process would only confirm those suspicions, and undermine the industry, if something goes wrong.

GrowHealthy CEO Don Clifford told The Ledger he is confident the state will see the error of its ways and reverse the outcome. We hope he’s right for the sake of his company, and those who will lean on medical marijuana for relief.




Dec. 18

The Miami Herald on counties helping the mentally ill:

Alarmed at the millions in taxpayer dollars drained managing the mentally ill and the homeless when they run afoul of the law, many Florida counties are uniting to seek a reset on how the state deals with these troubled offenders. County leaders are right - the majority of them need help, and jail is not the place where they will get it.

In the upcoming legislative session, the Florida Association of Counties wants lawmakers to overhaul the way the criminal-justice system deals with this vulnerable population.

“We need to decriminalize homelessness and mental illness,” Broward Commissioner Barbara Sharief told the Editorial Board this week. Ms. Sharief is president of FAC. Several remedial bills are being offered up in Tallahassee, and we commend FAC for taking a lead on this crucial issue.

The association says increased funding and coordination of programs and services for persons with behavioral health issues is needed to improve their overall health and quality of life, and to reduce the burden on county jails, courts, hospital emergency rooms - and taxpayers’ wallets.

The plight of mentally ill residents in Florida, where comprehensive care is dismal, has been an ongoing challenge. Florida still ranks a shameful 49th in per-capita funding for mental-health programs - set to be $420 million this year, same as last year. The state spends $40 per mentally ill person, compared to a national average of $122. Yet an estimated 3.9 million Floridians have some type of mental-health challenge.

The additional money indirectly helps agencies like Camillus House in Miami, which offers shelter to homeless people, many suffering from substance abuse and psychiatric problems, Executive Director Shed Boren told the Editorial Board, which this week toured its new campus. Camillus House, through programs like its landmark Lazarus Project, actively seeks out the mentally ill among the homeless population and directs them to social-service programs.

Florida’s mental-health funding flows through multiple state agencies and other organizations, including $1 billion a year through the Department of Children & Families. But too often, Floridians challenged by mental illness do not receive the care they need in the most effective setting.

If Florida lawmakers come through with appropriate funding, and they should, Camillus House and similar agencies across the state would play crucial roles. Toward that goal, FAC said it will focus its legislative efforts in these areas:

- Behavioral health services: FAC will support efforts to increase supportive housing, employment and education initiatives for people behavioral health issues.

- Baker Act: The organization will push for appropriate funding for mental-health and substance-abuse crisis beds statewide.

- Homelessness: FAC seeks a dedicated state funding source for homeless programs.

FAC says that Florida must stop providing inadequate hodgepodge care for mentally ill residents only in emergencies, which can turn into law-enforcement issues with prison sentences or deadly tragedies when they clash with police. Gov. Scott has proposed in the 2016 budget $19 million to better coordinate all programs. That’s a solid first step.

Lawmakers should heed FAC’s advice and improve Florida’s healthcare system. It will help save taxpayer money and repair broken lives.




Dec. 18

The Tampa Bay Times on abuses in Florida prisons:

Inmates in Florida state prisons should be able to serve their sentences without the fear of being raped or abused. But too often that is the reality for inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Ocala. Current and former inmates describe a prison rife with sexual assault, prostitution, physical abuse and neglect at the hands of guards and other staff members. This systemic dysfunction cannot be tolerated, and it underscores the well-documented need for sweeping reform in the Department of Corrections.

With nearly 2,700 inmates, Lowell is the largest women’s prison in the United States. According to an investigative series published last week by the Miami Herald, the institution also is home to a culture that is notoriously corrupt, where guards favor inmates who have sexual relationships with them and harass and seek to harm others who don’t cooperate. The Herald uncovered a litany of abuses ranging from male prison staffers who routinely walk through women’s showers to sexual abuse by both male and female staffers. Inmates who comply with demands for sex are rewarded with drugs and other contraband. Those who don’t submit risk officers’ wrath. Inmates’ punishments have ranged from guards withholding basic needs such as soap and sanitary pads to losing their belongings or visitation rights. Inmates who filed complaints about guards who coerced them to have sex or who committed other offenses were often sent to confinement in a 10- by 12-foot cell until they recanted.

Despite the threat of punishment for speaking out, 137 Lowell inmates logged allegations of staff sexual misconduct and 14 cases of sexual harassment from 2013 through most of 2015. The department settled just one case and says others are under investigation. Most officers at the center of complaints went unpunished. Some were later transferred to other prisons, a red flag that signals the Corrections Department knew something was amiss. With a department that rarely punishes bad guards and moves the worst around like chess pieces, no wonder so few inmates speak out about potential abuse.

Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said last week that she would thoroughly review the allegations of misconduct at Lowell. She also appointed a new assistant chief of investigations on Tuesday and stationed him at Lowell. Those are solid moves, but they are not enough. Jones should widely enforce the department’s zero-tolerance policy for criminal activity by staff, take seriously all claims of officer misconduct and dismiss staff members who are found guilty. Jones also must make sure wardens embrace and promote a culture of transparency and accountability at each of the facilities under her supervision. And she should install safeguards, such as video cameras throughout facilities, that will help keep staff members honest.

The Florida Legislature shares the blame for the state of affairs at Lowell and other prisons around the state. For years, lawmakers have starved the Department of Corrections, providing low wages that make the workforce ripe for turnover and little money for maintenance of the prisons. The Legislature should find money to attract, train and retain a more professional class of prison workers.

It is easy to look askance at prisoners who claim they have been victims of crime while incarcerated. But regardless of the reason they are locked up, inmates don’t deserve to be preyed upon by guards and other prison staff. There is nothing redemptive, rehabilitative or restorative about being the victim of a crime while doing time.



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