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DOH to Build Marijuana-Drug System

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Florida Department of Health
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Surgeon General John Armstrong may not like the idea of the state giving out medical marijuana, but it looks as though he’s stuck with it. (UPDATE: The Senate passed the House bill as-is around 12:30 p.m. Friday)

The House, Senate and governor have reached agreement to make a cannabis extract available to cancer and seizure patients through a tightly-regulated state-run program. And they have placed responsibility for developing that program squarely in Armstrong’s hands at the state Department of Health.

Armstrong’s staff won’t be handing out joints. They will build and preside over a system that includes five dispensaries statewide, tests and verifies the chemical composition of the plants, and sets up a “compassionate-use registry” for patients. Doctors will have to go through eight hours’ training in order to prescribe the drug.

The House on Thursday adopted a Senate version (CS/SB 1030) by a vote of 111 to 7; the bill will come up for final vote in the Senate on Friday, with odds strongly in its favor.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office, meanwhile, says he will sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

A number of supporters of the bill had feared Scott would veto it after Armstrong, Scott’s appointee, testified against it in a committee hearing 10 days ago. Armstrong said he opposed the idea of giving out untested drugs, especially since there is now a prescription drug approved by FDA that has some of the same characteristics as the extract in the bill.

"We must be wary of unintended consequences and remember that first we must do no harm," Armstrong said.

The product in question is low in THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana that produces euphoria. It is high in CBD, an antioxidant that seems to offer relief from pain, muscle spasms, seizures and muscle-wasting.

The House vote Thursday followed an emotional debate under the gaze of families that have fought for legalization of the drug, particularly for children with intractable seizures. By some estimates, there are 125,000 such cases in the state.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill as-is on Friday, the last day of the 2014 legislative session.

The bill has gotten bipartisan support. The House sponsor is Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, son of the Senate President Don Gaetz. In the Senate, the chief sponsor is Sen. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

One version of the high-CBD product,  called “Charlotte’s Web,” was developed in Colorado and named after a girl there who had almost continuous seizures. But it appears that out-of-state growers may be excluded from the Florida market, as the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reports.

One of the amendments attached to the bill, by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, would limit growers to nurseries that have been operating in Florida for at least 30 years. There was no discussion of the amendment, but Caldwell told the Times/Herald after the vote that he thinks there are around 35 growers in Florida that could compete for the business.