Florida, home to over 700,000 medical marijuana patients, is facing a privacy outcry after the Department of Health sent a mass email to these patients extolling Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent budget accomplishments. DeSantis, a Republican who is opposing a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, aimed to showcase his administration’s achievements.

The email highlighted a cancer research initiative led by First Lady Casey DeSantis, along with budget allocations for health issues like HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis. Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo included a message asserting that he and DeSantis are “advancing public health and personal responsibility in Florida.” Notably absent from the email was any mention of medical marijuana, a point that has sparked significant backlash.

Patients and advocates argue that the DeSantis administration misused the patient list for political purposes, violating privacy rights. “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 defended its actions, stating that the budget statement was sent to everyone in its email databases, totaling over 2 million recipients, including the public, healthcare professionals, licensees, and media. Department spokeswoman Weesam Khoury emphasized that medical marijuana patients were not singled out.

When questioned about other patient databases, such as those for cancer, COVID-19, or HIV patients, Khoury did not provide specifics on whether these 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 stress that the issue goes beyond inconvenience, pointing to privacy violations. Florida’s broad public records laws mean that if someone obtained the master email list, they could deduce who is a medical marijuana patient, since they comprise about 35% of the recipients. This could lead to unwanted marketing, political messages, or even potential job discrimination.

“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 Florida Cannabis Action Network. “My information should not be part of their general email blast list by any stretch of the imagination.”

Governor DeSantis has been a vocal critic of “Big Tech” for allegedly misusing personal information, making the state’s use of the patient email list particularly ironic. State Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried, a former agriculture commissioner, criticized the move as “irresponsible,” noting she would have faced severe backlash had she used the database of concealed weapons license holders for similar purposes.

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 wished to remain anonymous to protect his medical privacy.

John Morgan, a personal injury lawyer and advocate for the state’s 2016 medical marijuana initiative, questioned whether the email violated federal laws on medical information privacy. He suggested that the email list could be highly valuable for political purposes, particularly in promoting the recreational marijuana initiative in the upcoming November election. “That would be the greatest list they could ever have for this election,” he said.

Read the whole article from APNews here.

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