- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida health officials have begun the rules-making process that will expand those eligible to receive medical marijuana under Amendment 2, which took effect two weeks ago.

The Department of Health published proposed rules Tuesday and announced that public hearings will be held in five cities between Feb. 6 and Feb. 9.

Amendment 2 was approved by 71 percent of Florida voters on Election Day. It took effect on Jan. 3 and will allow higher-strength marijuana to be used for a wider list of medical ailments once a new set of rules are adopted and implemented.

The state legislature and Department of Health have until July to revise current rules and until September to implement them.

The proposal has already drawn sharp criticism from the group behind the amendment’s passage.

Ben Pollara, who is the campaign manager for United for Care, said in a statement that the proposed rule stands in contradiction to the amendment.

“If DOH’s rule is implemented as written, it will be in clear violation of Florida law,” he said. “Why DOH would choose to engage in a policymaking exercise which ignores both the law and the role of the legislature in implementing the law is a mystery.”

Pollara encouraged the department and Florida Legislature to take a more broad-minded approach to the revisions instead of merely configuring current statutes into the confines of the amendment.

The current law - approved by the state legislature in 2014 - allows for non-smoked, low-THC pot for patients with cancer or ailments that cause chronic seizures or severe spasms. It was expanded last March to allow patients with terminal conditions to gain access to higher strength cannabis.

The proposed rule allows only patients with one of 10 diagnoses to have access to medical marijuana. The amendment’s ballot language, though, allows doctors to order medical cannabis if they “believe the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks.”

It also does not allow for more distributing organizations. There are currently seven licensed, with one more case under an administrative challenge.

Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambinieri said Tuesday that “we look forward to receiving input from all interested stakeholders through the open and transparent rulemaking process.”

The Florida Legislature will also have a big say in the new rules. The state House and Senate have already held policy workshops with more scheduled before their 60-day session begins on March 7.

Tallahassee attorney Colin Roopnarine sees Tuesday’s proposal as the first step in the process.

“You have to start somewhere and they can’t start with everything in place. Everyone wants to have their say and see if they can have their impact,” said Roopnarine, who has worked as an attorney for various state agencies. “This is way to get things started and then ramping up and modifying efforts based on what may be coming legislation.”

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Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joereedy

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