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Florida’s Hemp Program on the Fast Track

September 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers got a briefing Tuesday morning on Florida’s hemp rollout.

Everything from a bureaucratic standpoint is moving quickly, but some caution there will likely be a learning curb before the program is in full swing.

When hemp first became legal law enforcement didn’t know how to distinguish it from illegal marijuana.

Florida’s Cannabis Director Holly Bell said many law enforcement agencies have have obtained cheap test kits that can tell the difference on the spot.

“It really helps that on-the-road officer still have what he needs to do his job,” said Bell.

The kit is just one of many promising steps forward lawmakers heard as part of the hemp update from the Department of Agriculture.

“I feel like we’re very much on track. We’ve been working very hard and things are moving along well,” said Bell.

The first licenses for roughly 3,000 interested growers are expected to start being issued at the start of 2020.

Planting will likely start soon after.

Florida’s Cannabis Director predicts the first crop in 2020 will be several million dollars, but she expects that number to reach the hundreds of million, if not billions with in just a few years.

FAMU and UF researchers explained the first year may be difficult because there are still many unknowns regarding best practices for growing hemp in Florida’s environment.

Some of those risks involve a lack of certified pesticides for hemp and a lack of knowledge of what strains grow best where in the state.

“I am a little bit concerned about growers getting out ahead of what we know on the science in Florida,” said Dean of Research at UF Robert Gilbert. “We can’t make recommendations on one year of data.”

An experienced hemp farmer, Scott Burgett with Green Earth Cannaceuticals also warned January freezes and shorter days could yield a poor crop if farmers start too soon.

“You end up with a four or five inch plant that you paid $3 for that’s worth about 60 cents,” said Burgett.

Even with the expected challenges, lawmakers said they don’t believe it will slow the growth of hemp in Florida.

Florida is still awaiting certification from the USDA for its hemp program, but Florida’s Cannabis Director said other states have already begun cultivating and Florida will likely be able to begin with or without Federal approval.

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Top Florida Officials Take on Teen Vaping Epidemic

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and Education Commissioner began strategizing Tuesday to reduce teen use of vaping pens.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said she has found a lack of education among both parents and children.

“You know, we’ve been widely successful in increasing awareness among teens about combustible cigarettes and the dangers associated with that. Now we’ve got to just get out in from of this vaping,” said Moody.

“The Department of Health and our Agency are developing a three hour course, so that when you have moment when a child is caught or found and is going to be suspended because of it we have this intervention of this three hour course that can hopefully give them the education so they can recognize that what we’re dealing with is deadly stuff,” said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

Legislation to raise the age for purchasing vaping equipment from 18 to 21 failed in the 2019 legislative session.

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Chris Sprowls Designated as Next Florida Speaker

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Flordia House republicans designated Pinellas County Republican Chris Sprowls as the next Speaker of the Florida House on Tuesday.

Sprowls will take over after the 2020 election.

He told us to expect more of the same conservatism that has come from the House in recent years.

“We’ve done more to dramatically expand choice in K-12 education over the last several years than maybe the last 25. We’re going to continue to build on that. We’re gonna bring down health care barriers. We’re going to expand access to the health care marketplace. We’re going to continue to build on innovation and technology.And we’re going to continue to make Florida the best place to live in the nation,” said Sprowls.

While Sprowls will lead the House, another Tampa Bay Area legislator, State Senator Wilton Simpson is in line to be the President of the Florida Senate in 2020.

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Bill Filed to Share School Guardian Money

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

More than $40 million remains unspent from a fund created by lawmakers to pay for the costs or arming teachers and school guardians.

A day after a three hour hearing on school safety, legislation was been filed by State Senator Janet Cruz to shift the money to other school safety measures.

“I’m just simply saying that if its sitting there not being used and if counties don’t want to arm teachers or train people to use guns, then perhaps we can use it to harden schools and make schools safer,” said Cruz.

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ACHA Says Nearly All Nursing Home are In Compliance with Generator Requirement

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Agency for Health Care Secretary Mary Mayhew told state senators on Tuesday that there was confusion about which nursing homes and assisted living facilities were in compliance with a law requiring generators or evacuation plans as Hurricane Dorian approached.

Mayhew said virtually every home in Florida is in compliance.

“Today, ninety eight percent of all assisted living facilities have generators. Nearly eighty percent of nursing homes have either a permanent generator on site or a temporary generator. And the only reason it is temporary is because it may lack permitting,” said Mayhew.

Legislation requiring generators was enacted after 14 people died in a South Flordia nursing home in 2017.

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Hurricane Michael Not Forgotten by Florida Lawmakers

September 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As lawmakers return to the state Capitol for the first round of committee weeks, one of the most pressing issues is hurricane recovery, especially from Hurricane Michael.

Effects from the storm, which hit nearly a year ago, are still ravaging the panhandle.

In many ways the panhandle has lived up to its nickname, ‘The Forgotten Coast’.

A survey conducted this summer found one out of three Floridians aren’t even aware the storm hit in 2018.

“We can’t afford to forget,” said Senator Bill Montford.

Montford represents multiple counties that continue to feel Michael’s impacts.

“Now that the Federal Government has acted we’ve got to see where the state can fill in. To fill in some holes, if you will. Housing, ag, just jobs themselves. So we do have a roll, the state does,” said Montford.

The state is forecasting it will have $800 million less over the next two years than previously expected.

However, Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said a tight budget won’t prevent the Legislature from addressing the needs in the panhandle.

“That storm may have been forgotten in other parts of the country, but it is front and center on our minds,” said Bradley.

It’s not only dollars that lawmakers have to offer to the panhandle.

Legislators also are looking at ways to speed up insurance claims and prevent contractors from over charging for storm repairs.

Senator George Gainer from Panama City said delayed insurance payments contributed to Bay county losing almost 20 percent of its population after the storm.

“A claim ought to be up or down within a year. A year’s a long time to wait and it’s very expensive trying to find a place you can live in the meantime,” said Gainer.

In addition, Senator Gainer said he hopes to introduce legislation that could improve cell phone communications after a storm hits.

Senators we spoke with also emphasized the need to help the timber industry, which took a huge hit during Michael.

While lawmakers are committed to continuing support for the panhandle this upcoming legislative session, it will likely be decades before the area is fully recovered.

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Senators Begin Hearings on Mass Violence

September 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time ever, a Florida Senate committee is delving into the causes of mass violence.

The hearing began with testimony from FSU researchers.

“And the years with the most mass shootings are 1980, 1992, 1993, and 2016,” said Dr. Jillian Turanovic with the FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

While mass violence is not increasing dramatically, despite public opinion to the contrary, hate crimes are exploding.

“The internet can act as an echo chamber where they just hear louder and hateful versions of their own hateful viewpoints,” said Dr. Brendon Lantz.

And the Department of Law Enforcement said horrific crimes are in many cases preventable.

“More than half communicated their intentions to harm a specific target to at least one third part and ofter times these revelations included their specific plans,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

Moms Demand Action delivered 807 letters to the committee chair Tom Lee.

Most ask for better background checks.

“I think its the most doable, I think its the most effective,” said Kate Kile with MDA. “I think you can look to the states that have these laws and you can look at the reduction in homicides and reductions in aggregated assaults.”

No votes were taken, indeed no bills were before the committee.

Rather, the hearing was the beginning of a conversation about what might be done to stop random mass violence.

“We should get to the bottom of why this individual was not thinking the right way at the time, and make sure that when folks are having these episodes of not thinking right, not seeing things clearly, that we are able to de-escalate them as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Jay Reeve with the Apalachee Center, a mental health and substance abuse center in Tallahassee.

And Lee said the job now is to sort out what ideas can muster enough votes to become law.

Senators made clear that legislation to ban assault rifles, which account for about 25 percent of mass murders, is dead on arrival this year.

A petition is currently being circulated to put the ban before voters in 2020.

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Attorney General Still Negotiating Florida’s Take of Purdue Settlement

September 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida, along with nearly two dozen other states and thousands of cities and counties, is on the verge of scoring a major victory in the fight against the opioid crisis.
Earlier this year the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing the Attorney General access to information in the prescription drug monitoring database to aid the lawsuit, but Attorney General Ashley Moody says it hasn’t been easy to get to this point.
“If I could liken it to landing a 757 on a postage stamp,” said Moody.
A tentative settlement has been reached with one of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers, Purdue Pharma, known for the now-infamous opioid drug Oxycontin.
The company manufactures about ten percent of the nation’s opioid supply.
The aim of the suit is to hold the company accountable for its roll in the opioid crisis.
“Alleging that this opioid epidemic that kills 17 people a day in Florida is man made and it was the result of actions of those defendants,” said Moody.
The details of the settlement aren’t known, but many sources are reporting it’s likely between $10 and $12 billion.
“We still have many details to iron out. We’re still in those negotiations at this moment, but we’re encouraged by this first step,” said Moody.
Purdue is just one of 12 companies Florida is suing in connection with the opioid crisis, which means this settlement is likely only the beginning.
The other companies include additional manufacturers and distributors Walgreens and CVS.
“And we are still aggressively pursuing the remaining 11 defendants in this case,” said Moody.
It’s still unclear exactly how much Florida is expected to receive from Purdue.

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Governor Keeping Close Watch on Potential Tropical Storm

September 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
The latest track for what could become tropical storm Humberto has moved slightly left or further off the Florida east coast.
In a tweet, Governor Ron DeSantis urged residents to be prepared.
“We are closely monitoring a tropical depression with @FLSERT. Regardless of the exact track or development, Floridians along the East Coast should be prepared for heavy rain and potential flooding, have supplies ready and follow local media for updates,” said DeSantis.
Earlier in the week the Governor urged Floridians to stock up just in case.
“We’re at the height of the season know, and I hope that folks are…if you weren’t fully prepared for Dorian, just think, if you just go now and get a couple things of water, you won’t have to worry about this stuff being off the shelves, but I think you really saw people rushing to do that,” said DeSantis.

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Tallahassee Mass Stabbing Suspect Held Without Bond

September 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The man charged with stabbing five co-workers in the state capital on Wednesday appeared in court Thursday morning, where a judge found him to be a danger to the community.

41 year old Antwann Brown bowed his head as he waited for his first appearance before a judge.

Prosecutors told the court the proof of guilt was great.

“Numerous witnesses. He was found on the scene with blood, with a knife,” said Assistant State Attorney of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Doug Hall.

The Judge agreed.

“Mr. Brown, the court has great concerns for the safety of our community and and the court is going to be holding you with no bond,” said Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson.

Minutes before the stabbings, the assailant called his pastor asking for a prayer and forgiveness for what he was about to do.

Prosecutors believe the attacks were premeditated because the assailant told one witness he had cornered “I’m going to spare you this time” just before he left the business and was captured.

Nat sot: “ I was scared. I ran,” said Brown’s co-worker Scottie Washington.

Washington, who only heard the commotion, said the violence surprised him.

“He was a good guy. You know, he was in training to be a pastor. I just don’t know what happened,” said Washington.

Brown lived in the Dwellings, a second chance community in a 220 square foot “tiny” house, paying $600 a month for room and board.

“Many clients out here didn’t know Mr. Brown,” said Monique Ellsworth, CEO of Connecting Everyone with Second Chances. “We sit down and try to really understand what are the needs of the person staying here. What goals and aspirations do they have related to housing or community? There’s a lot of fears on the property about what the rest of Tallahassee is going to thing about the people living out here.”

Brown is being represented by a public defender.

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AG Says Recreational Marijuana Amendment is Too Long

September 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One of the three ballot initiatives hoping to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida has made a formidable opponent… Florida’s Attorney General.

AG Ashley Moody is looking to block the ballot initiative sponsored by Sensible Florida and has asked the Supreme Court to strike down the initiative, in part, because of its length.

The initiative would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.

Sensible Florida Chairperson Michael Minardi said most of the amendment language establishes a regulatory framework for the industry.

“It is for the people of Florida and giving the plant back to the people of Florida . It is for the businesses of Florida,” said Minardi.

But Moody argues voters can’t fully understand everything it does based off of the required 75-word ballot summary.

She posted a photo on Twitter of the ten-page amendment hanging from the ceiling and spilling onto the floor, with the caption, “Longer than Article I of our State Constitution”.

We put the AG’s photo to the test, formatting both Article I and the proposed amendment exactly the same.

Both are about six pages, with the amendment about a fourth of a page longer and containing nearly 300 more words.

Of two other recreational marijuana amendments, the first is two pages long and the second is just one paragraph.

But Minardi said the level of detail in the Sensible Florida amendment is actually its strength.

“To make sure that we have the people that want to be involved and cultivate for home use are able to do so and the businesses that want to get involved are able to do so and it’s done and set out clearly in that amendment. So our Legislature cannot thwart the amendment of the voters’ will again,” said Minardi.

The ballot initiative has gathered just shy of 90,000 valid signatures.

Minardi said Sensible Florida is ready to take on the Attorney General when the amendment goes before the Supreme Court.

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North Florida School District Held Hostage By Hackers

September 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A North Florida School district is being held hostage by hackers.

Wakulla County schools discovered a ransomeware attack last Thursday and the district and its insurer are still trying to decide if they should pay to regain the use of some critical software programs.

Wakulla Superintendent Robert Pearce said contact with the hackers was made over the weekend.

“They let us know we were being held ransom, and they assigned a bitcoin amount they wanted, and at this time, I’m not allowed to disclose that because this is sill under investigation and we are still in negotiation,” said Pearce.

No student data was taken, but the attack on the 5,000 student district has shut down software used by students to pay for lunches, details on school bus ridership, email and a library software program.

”We can’t get into those files right now. The good news is we can still operate,” said Pearce.

Investigators and the IT department are still sorting out the depth of the damage.

Until that’s known, the option of paying the hackers is still on the table.

“They will ninety nine and forty four percent certain that these folks are legit, have a key, and that’s its worth purchasing before our insurance company would do that,” said Pearce.

Kim Fitzgerald has two nephews in the high school.

“That concerns me. Having to pay, you know, but its just something that happens now-days,” said Fitzgerald. “I mean they are able to get into all of our information and do that, so, I guess we’re all kinda held ransom,, don’t you think?”

This the third known attack on a rural school district in the state.

At least two cities have paid a ransom in recent months including Lake City, which paid a half million dollars to get control of its computers.

In addition to the critical software the ransom-ware has disabled, about 50 classroom computers have been rendered useless and will likely have to be wiped clean.

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Five Hospitalized in Tallahassee Mass Stabbing

September 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Five victims are in the hospital after a mass stabbing at a construction material company in the state’s capital city Wednesday morning.

The suspect is in police custody.

One victim is in serious condition.

Police said suspect, Antwann Demetris Brown, got in a verbal confrontation with fellow employees at Dyke Industries Inc near the state capitol and was asked to leave.

Police said the suspect clocked out at 8:20 then allegedly began stabbing fellow employees with a pocket knife.

“He appeared that he actually had sought out certain victims,” said Tallahassee Police Department Interim Chief Steve Outlaw.

Police said employees took matters into their own hands and restrained the suspect, but he broke free when police arrived.

He was then apprehended about a block from the crime scene.

“It actually held him at bay at one point momentarily,” said Outlaw. “That delayed his escape which was very good for us.”

Police leadership was notified while attending a 9/11 memorial service.

“You can’t help but wonder, on the first blush when you hear that, is this related to the anniversary,” said Outlaw.

As of mid-day police said they were still interviewing the suspect, but police said they don’t believe the stabbings and the anniversary are linked.

However, the tragic incident, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is sure to be a date that lives in infamy for the victims.

“The time you walk into work that next morning, that’s a trigger point. And so you can’t help but have a flashback of what occurred the previous day and this will always be an anniversary day for some of the coworkers,” said Outlaw.

The suspect, Antwann Brown, has a non-violent criminal history dating back to 1996.

He now faces five counts of attempted 1st degree murder and an aggravated assault charge.

Victims are being offered counseling.

The mass stabbing comes as the Florida Senate prepares to hold hearings on mass violence starting next week.

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Environmental Groups Back to Square One in Amendment Lawsuit

September 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A lengthy legal battle over a voter approved amendment to fund environmental programs isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon.

A new appellate court ruling has put sponsors back to square one.

When 75 percent of voters approved Amendment One in 2014, many believed they were guaranteeing a funding source for the environment.

The amendment allocated 33 percent of revenues from real-estate documentary stamps to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund

“We want restored Florida Forever funding, which was $300 million. We want Everglades restoration, which was $200 million and we want some more money going to land management,” said Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.

Instead of spending the money to purchase and maintain environmental lands, the Legislature used much of it to cover things like administrative costs.

Lawmakers’ spending choices spurred a lawsuit from environmental groups like The Florida Wildlife Federation.

“The Legislature has a history of ignoring what people put in the constitution. They just shifted this money to use it as an environmental slush fund,” said FWF President Preston Robertson.

Despite an initial court victory in 2018, which found 185 appropriations totaling more than $420 million unconstitutional, the groups are now facing a major setback.

An appellate court sent the case back to the trial court without deciding whether the funds are being misused.

For environmental groups, it’s a major disappointment.

“We’re going back to trial and having to argue this all over again,” said Robertson.

The appellate court focused its decision on a narrow aspect of the initial ruling.

It rejected the original judge’s determination that Amendment One funds could only be spent on lands purchased after the amendment took effect in 2015.

For the time being, lawmakers will still be free to use Amendment One money how they see fit, including in the legislative session that begins in January.

However, Moncrief said it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

“They could fix all of this by passing a budget that actually has actually allocates more funding to programs like Florida Forever and not to business as usual expenses,” said Moncrief.

The court battle is now four-years-old and there’s no clear end in sight.

The clock is ticking.

The amendment is set to expire in 2035.

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Recreational Marijuana Sees Big Cash Infusion

September 10th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

There are five pending amendments for the 2020 ballot that seek to make marijuana more available, but only one of the five appears to have the financial backing to get to the ballot.

Make it Legal Florida is the newest and richest kid on the block when it comes to pushing for legal marijuana.

In its first month it has contributions of just over a million dollars, all coming from two marijuana growers.

“We’re going to get on the ballot,” said Nick Hansen, who is in charge of the campaign.

A recent poll found bipartisan support for recreational marijuana at 67 percent with little drop off when voters were tested with opponents likely arguments.

A 60 percent vote is needed for approval.

“A super majority of Floridians want access, safe and legal access to cannabis,” said Hansen.

Another group, Sensible Florida has collected less than $200,000 in over two years.

Attorney John Morgan, who ran the successful 2016 effort to get medical marijuana on the ballot said it is still possible for one of the groups to get on the ballot, but it’ll be an uphill battle.

“You know, at this late date, you’re going to have to spend ten to fifteen million to get the signatures on the ballot,” said Morgan.

Like the other 11 states with legal marijuana, both petitions limit pot sales to people over 21.

“I’m a father of five, so I completely understand that,” said Hansen. “And I think every parent should know that responsible adults should have access, but there should be safeguards in place from the industry and regulators.”

But Morgan, who sometimes bills himself as ‘Pot Daddy’ said the campaign is going to face well-heeled opponents.

“Never underestimate how important this is to the pharmaceutical industry that this not become an alternative,” said Morgan.

All of which could make the 2020 campaign to legalize marijuana, the most expensive the state has ever seen.

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