By Robert C. Goethe, MD
Less than a year ago, I quit my anesthesia job and started Better Health (now Dr. Bob’s) Compassion Clinic. I have become more convinced than ever before that this phenomena of medical cannabis is helping many, many, Floridians and is only going to get bigger. The medical cannabis program is still in its infancy in Florida. What’s going to happen as we move forward and make it easier to get, perhaps even legalizing it for adult use consumption? Let’s just have some fun and look at things that legalizing cannabis, medical and for adult use, did for the state of Colorado. What would happen if Florida followed Colorado’s lead?
Colorado had medical cannabis since 2000 and then passed a law to legalized adult use (recreational) in 2012. Now 6 years later we have some data we can look at that could serve as a blueprint should Florida decide to allow the sale and tax of medical and adult use cannabis.
Cannabis sales now exceed $1.5 billion dollars a year in Colorado. The state collects a 2.9 % sales tax on medical cannabis. The recreational stuff is taxed at 2.9% + 15% special sales tax + 15% excise tax which is 32.9%, in addition to any local sales taxes that a county or city may impose.
According to US News Report, the taxes collected from Colorado cannabis sales was over $200 million dollars in 2017 and has been increasing every year. What has Colorado done with all this money? In 2016, they actually put an initiative on the ballot to provide universal health coverage for state residents. Wouldn’t that be nice? But it didn’t pass. But they did find other ways to help the state, include spending millions on education and public health, substance abuse facilities, and affordable housing. Law enforcement gets a good portion too.
I have personally enjoyed visiting Colorado over many years and can testify that it is amazing how upscale and modern some of these towns look since the new gold (green) rush of cannabis. Recently my wife and I drove thru a little border mining town called Trinidad just north of New Mexico. The streets were being repaved and they were rebuilding the school with money from the proceeds of cannabis taxes. The downtown was attractive and full of visitors spending their money who most likely would not be there except to enjoy the novelty of being in a state where cannabis was legal and safe.
Some would argue that this doesn’t sound like a good thing. What about the crime and drug problems? Well, the data coming out now is compelling. Since liberalizing marijuana, Colorado has seen a marked decrease in fatal drug overdoses, less violent crime and less property crime.
Citizens of Colorado can legally grow their own marijuana plants and it’s not hard to get a grow license. This has provided for lots of production and very low prices. Even with all the tax, it’s very inexpensive compared to what it costs in Florida. Florida only initially allowed only 5 nurseries they picked to grow marijuana. The state requires unusual restrictions on the growers, such as coughing up 5 million dollars for a bond so the state has recourse if they screw up. Also, the growers also have to be the processors and the sellers (dispensaries) so that the whole process is integrated vertically. That is, the state can maintain total control over the production companies and stop their entire process if they chose. These growers also have to document every single plant from seed to sale. These restrictions translate into the reality that it is a lot harder to produce cannabis in Florida and therefore the price is much higher.
Floridians who use medical cannabis will usually spend $150 to $250 a month for products. Insurance doesn’t yet cover it, so it’s a cash business. There are now over 150,000 Floridians who are on the registry so it’s becoming popular and mainstream quickly, because it works for most people. But one of the biggest complaints I hear, especially from patients who have experienced medical cannabis in other states, Florida is very expensive. Not everyone can spend a few hundred dollars a month.
Insurance might one day cover the cost of medical marijuana if the FDA ever takes it out of the Schedule 1 classification. If you compare it to the price of standard pharmaceutical drugs like insulin that now cost $800 a month or the new hepatitis pill that costs $500 a pill ( yes, I’m talking about you, Harvoni), cannabis is a bargain!
I bring up the extra high cost of medical cannabis in Florida because this is a situation that doesn’t need to be. If Florida would follow the lead of the western states that have legalized cannabis, competition heats up and prices would go way down. This would very much benefit Floridians using medical cannabis.
Imagine now if Florida allowed competitive production and also allowed adult use cannabis. Like Colorado. First of all, the prices would come way down for patients. And if using the Colorado model for taxing cannabis, Florida might expect to see extra revenue of about $800 million dollars a year. Imagine what this money could do to help Florida with some of its glaring problems. The first thing that comes to mind would be it could bail us out of the School Resource Officer mandate that happened this year – the new state law that requires an armed officer in every school in Florida. This unfunded mandate will cost about $360 million a year and no one seems to agree where this money might get come from.
Certainly Florida could also use some of the new found money to support citizen’s access to health care. Florida’s Health Care is ranked a dismal #48 in the United States. Not so good in a state with lots of elderly people needing care. Florida could perhaps improve its infrastructure to make the state more attractive to visitors. Not to mention, decriminalizing cannabis would certainly attract more tourists to the state. Just like Colorado saw an increase. As a bonus to the tax revenues, we should expect much lower drug overdose deaths and a reduction in violent crime. Like Colorado.
In conclusion, medical cannabis has opened the door for some exciting potential if this state keeps an open mind and embraces this change. Everyone will benefit.
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Dr. Bob Goethe is a board certified anesthesiologist, with over 40 years of medical experience who is now semi-retired in Citrus County and chooses to support the medical marijuana initiative because he has seen it’s benefits in patients and strongly believes in the cause.