Florida medical marijuana patients get an unexpected email praising DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida has more than 700,000 medical marijuana patients and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is battling a proposal to allow recreational use of marijuana — wants them all to know what a great job he's doing.

The Department of Health last week sent a blast email to its medical marijuana patient list boasting that DeSantis signed the state budget. The email praised a cancer research program promoted by first lady Casey DeSantis, listed health issues like HIV, hepatitis and syphilis that are in the spending plan and gave a message from Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo that he and DeSantis are “advancing public health and personal responsibility in Florida.”

Nothing in the email mentions medical marijuana, and patients and advocates say that the DeSantis administration violated their privacy by using the patient list to promote policy.

“That is revolting. That is really such a misuse of power and information," said state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, the ranking Democrat on the House Health Policy Committee. “I guarantee you nobody checked the box that said, ‘Yes, it’s OK to send me information on Gov. DeSantis’ agenda.’"

The Department of Health said it didn't single out medical marijuana patients, but rather sent the budget statement to everyone in its email databases, which spokeswoman Weesam Khoury said includes more than “2 million members of the public, health care professionals, licensees, and media.”

Khoury was asked if the department has email databases for other patients, such as cancer, COVID-19 or HIV, but provided no details if such databases exist or if they also were used to promote the governor's budget.

“It is unfortunate that The Associated Press has decided to write a story about the inconvenience of an email, rather than covering the key investments that will save countless lives,” she said.

Patient advocates say it’s more than just an inconvenience, it’s a violation of privacy — not just because promoting the governor has nothing to do with their health care. Florida has broad public records laws and if someone obtained the master email list, they could deduce who is a medical marijuana patient, since they make up about 35% of the recipients.

Patients could be subject to unwanted marketing and political messages or worse — employers could see who has a medical marijuana card.

“This was a 'look how great the governor is and how much he's done for us at the Department of Health,'" said Jodi James, president of the nonprofit Florida Cannabis Action Network. “My information should not be part of their general email blast list by any stretch of the imagination."

Ironically, DeSantis has been a loud critic of “Big Tech” and has accused private companies of misusing users' personal information.

It’s shocking the state would use the patient email list for its policy agenda, said state Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried, a former agriculture commissioner who oversaw the list of concealed weapons license holders.

“I would have been scorched alive if I had done anything with that database to either release their information to another part of my agency or to have used that database for pushing the rest of the news or activities from the Department of Agriculture,” Fried said. “It’s irresponsible.”

A medical marijuana patient in Pensacola told The Associated Press that he and others plan to file a formal complaint.

“If it was a doctor that put out your private patient information for some other agenda, I feel like somebody should be held accountable,” said the patient, who didn’t want his name used to protect his medical privacy.

Personal injury lawyer John Morgan, who spearheaded the state’s 2016 medical marijuana effort, questioned how the email didn’t violate federal law restricting the release of medical information. He also said the email list would be a bonanza for people who want to use it for political purposes, including to promote recreational marijuana in November.

“That would be the greatest list they could ever have for this election,” he said.