Gov. Rick Scott this summer signed into law a bill that implemented the Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, known as Amendment 2, which mandated an expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program.
One requirement of that was the creation of a panel to review all physician certifications submitted to the medical marijuana use registry.
The panel, created Thursday night, is made up of members from the Florida Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine. It will track and report the number of physician medical marijuana certifications, and the qualifying medical conditions, dosage, supply amount and form of marijuana certified.
But critics of the panel, like medical cannabis activist Gary Stein, are worried the members will use this data to punish doctors who routinely authorize the medicine.
“If you have one particular doctor who’s taking a lot of patients in, particularly for chronic pain, and these doctors are doing more to recommend medical cannabis as opposed to standard analgesics like opioids, then they’re going to be scrutinizing those doctors and questioning their practice,” Stein said.
"Many lawyers are telling doctors: do not practice cannabis medicine in the state of Florida because your license is at risk. And this (the board) is one of the reasons."
Dr. Michelle Mendez, a member of the newly created panel, disputed that claim.
“Nowhere in the statute, or in the rulemaking, is this a body of judgment. I’ve heard many people today mention judgment or approval or some concern about adverse impact on people’s licenses … if there is misconception that this is a trial by fire, that is not the intention of the statute,” Mendez said shortly before the panel adjourned.
"It is simply a data gathering panel as designated by Florida law, and it is not an intention to limit any physician's ability to perform the job that a physician chose to perform for the best well-being of their patient.”
After the meeting, Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the newly named chair of the Physician Certification Pattern Review Panel Board, said the activists' claims are “nonsense.”
Out in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel where the meeting was held, cannabis advocates waited for hours for their turn to speak during the public comment portion of the boards’ Joint Committee on Medical Marijuana Meeting. The meeting was repeatedly moved to later times over the course of the day.
Nate Jurewicz, founder of Christians for Cannabis, was one of about 20 people who showed up early in the day to speak to the board. His interest in medical marijuana came after a diagnosis of a back condition called spondylolisthesis.
“A lot of Christians totally demonize God’s plant because they’re completely uninformed on the subject,” Jurewicz said. “So I sort of stir up the pot, literally, and educate religious Christians about cannabis and also spread the gospel to the stoner community.”
Some of the other concerns voiced at the meeting included long wait times for identification cards, struggles finding doctors near to patients who are on the registry, and the cost of doctor visits and medication since medical marijuana is still federally illegal, and therefore not covered by insurance.
After the meeting, Michael Thompson, founder of Floridians for Cannabis, was not reassured by the board’s insistence that they will not punish or restrict doctors who authorize medical marijuana to patients. He said the board’s very existence makes it harder for patients to get access to cannabis in the same way they have access to opioids, despite the crackdown against pill mills in recent years.
“Adding more bureaucracy in a bottleneck hurts the entire patient base and it’s a little ridiculous that it’s a lot easier to get a prescription for an opiate or hydrocodone, but if you want to get cannabis you have to go through all these regulatorial loops and paperwork,” Thompson said.
Another component of the meeting was another look at a new form physicians in the medical marijuana registry must fill out and submit to the joint panel. The form was not finalized at the meeting, but will be used to collect and analyze the data that, beginning Jan. 1, 2018, will be submitted as an annual report to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature.