After three years of being the target of ire for disputes and delays troubling Florida’s nascent medical pot industry, Christian Bax is resigning as the state’s cannabis czar. Bax, who has been leading the Office of Medical Marijuana Use since pot products first hit shelves, quits as state health officials prepare for another onslaught of applications for the few available, highly sought after weed licenses.
Bax, an attorney, has been the subject of widespread criticism from legislators, patients, and “ganjapreneurs” trying to get a foot in the state’s intensely competitive and restricted medical marijuana market. Criticism worsened after voters in Florida approved a constitutional amendment that legalized weed for medical use back in 2016.
Courtney Coppola, Bax’s deputy director, who began work for the office shortly after Bax joined in 2015, will take the reins from here. In a resignation letter, dated Friday, to Department of Health Chief of Staff Cindy Dick, Bax said he “will be leaving no later than August 10.” He wrote, “It has been an incredible honor to have served the department and the people of Florida in the task of building something entirely new in this state.”
People reacted different to Bax’s departure, with the harshest reaction coming from John Morgan, a trial lawyer in Orlando, who largely funded the constitutional amendment, known as “Amendment 2,” which won the vote by 71 percent. In an email, Morgan wrote, “He was so inept it had to be intentional. Anyone would be better and more capable.”
Morgan continued, “He was to health care in Florida what Barney Fife was to law enforcement. This is a great day for the sick and injured in Florida.” On behalf of ailing patients and others, Morgan sued the state last year after the Legislature included a ban on pot smoking products in a law designed to implement the amendment.
Although a circuit judge ruled in favor of Morgan and the plaintiffs, the state has since appealed the ruling. Ben Pollara, campaign manager of the committee responsible for Amendment 2, said, “It is a shame it has taken this long” for Bax to resign. “His tenure has been marked by repeated failures to meet the needs of patients throughout Florida.”
Pollara stated, “I sincerely hope the office’s new leadership will learn from those mistakes and act quickly to get Florida’s medical marijuana program fully functional.” Pollara is also the head of Florida for Care, a non-profit organization that advocates for patients and the medical cannabis industry in general.
Others, however, thought the criticism harsh since hiccups were expectable as Florida’s lawmakers and regulators struggle to create a workable blueprint for a market likely to generate $2 billion in sales for what could potentially become the nation’s biggest medical marijuana industry. Jeff Sharkey, a lobbyist representing licensed medical pot businesses and others wanting to set up shop, had this to say:
“It is no surprise that Bax has been under a lot of pressure trying to manage this rapidly growing medical cannabis industry, with all its politics and pressures and health care concerns.” Medical weed has been a controversy in Florida ever since lawmakers legalized non-psychoactive weed in 2014. The industry’s rollout has faced delays because of legal and regulatory issues, with Bax’s office taking the blame.
“There is no denying it is a hard job,” Bax’s predecessor, Patty Nelson, said in a telephone interview. “It sometimes feels like an impossible job, and you face critics from every direction, which makes it difficult to navigate.” Nelson now consults. The complaints over Bax’s oversight of the office have been many, from patients and everybody between.
Patients have been griping about long wait times to get the required identification cards processed. Administrative law judges have been repeatedly rejecting decisions that health officials make regarding the awarding of licenses, and lawmakers have been piling it on. Bax came under fire after he did not meet a legislatively mandated deadline to issue five new medical pot licenses last fall.
Bax blamed being behind schedule on Hurricane Irma and a pending legal challenge to a 2017 law that ordered health officials to issue more medical pot licenses than initially planned. “I am not buying that just because there is litigation out there you cannot fulfill your statutory duty to issue these additional licenses,” Dana Young, Senate Health Policy Chairwoman and Republican lawyer from Tampa, said while scolding Bax in a committee meeting last October.
This spring, lawmakers in the state, still angry over the delay in issuing licenses, retaliated against Bax by withholding $1.9 million in benefits and salaries for his office. Just two weeks ago, Bax’s office laid out a new plan to issue four new licenses, which will, without doubt, attract additional challenges. However, industry insiders, even his critics, do not think Bax’s exit will make too much difference.
They say that with Bax’s exit, which comes as health officials prepare to review another estimated 400 applications to fill the four new slots, uncertainty will still cloud the state’s blossoming medical weed industry. “Instability is to be expected” in a new market, said Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who is pushing to include the $1.9 million holdbacks into the state budget, via text.
“The least government can do for business is to be predictable in its regulation,” Brodeur said. “We have yet to get to the point of predictable regulation because of the department’s delay. I hope this provides an opportunity to meet expectations.” Last week, Legislature agreed to increase Bax’s budget by $13.29 million to help process new license applications and cover the ongoing costs of litigation.
Coppola, in appearing before the committee, explained that the office has 11 ongoing lawsuits and has had “nearly double” that number since 2015. The request for additional funding came just two weeks after the state’s new budget went into effect. Industry insiders believe they are incapable hands with Coppola, who began work for Florida as a gubernatorial candidate in 2013 and took a more public profile as Bax’s lieutenant.
“Courtney is very well qualified and respected in the industry,” said lawyer Jim McKee, who represents businesses in the medical marijuana sphere, to the News Service. “Given her years of experience and substantive knowledge, she is the ideal person to take over the reins at the Office of Medical Marijuana Use.” However, Senate budget Chief Rob Bradley put Coppola on notice.
The Republican from Fleming Island played a crucial role in drafting and passing laws for medical pot in the state. He said via text, “The bipartisan frustration with the slow implementation of this law has been well documented. Last week, Ms. Coppola gave the Legislature a plan to finish the implementation of the law. Now that she is in charge, our expectation is for her to execute her plan and finish the job.”