Twenty three states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam, have some form of law allowing patients to use medical marijuana. Florida is among those states, but so far, patients have not been able to access the drug.
90.7 Health Reporter Abe Aboraya spoke with Intersection Host Matthew Peddie.
PEDDIE: I want to start with some background because there is a lot of confusion out there. Is medical marijuana legal in Florida?
ABE: Yes. Kinda. It’s complicated. So last summer Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 1030, the Compassionate Medical Use act. This became known as the Charlotte’s Web bill. Now what this did was legalize a very specific strain of medical marijuana.
PEDDIE: This is for children with epilepsy, right? This came after Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s big CNN Special.
ABE: Absolutely. This is a low-THC medical marijuana, so it doesn’t get have the psychoactive effects. But it has high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD. Originally this drug was designed as an alternative drug for children with intractable seizures. But as the legislative process shook out, the patient population was broadened. Now a patient needs to be a Florida resident with symptoms of cancer or a physical medical condition that chronically produces symptoms of seizure or persistent medical spasms. And patients must have tried other treatments without success. And for children, two physicians have to sign off that medical marijuana is necessary.
PEDDIE: We’ve talked about the patients for Charlotte’s Web, let’s talk about the doctors.
ABE: So before a doctor can recommend medical marijuana in Florida, they have to go through a training course with the Florida Medical Association and get registered with the state. Right now, 54 doctors have completed that course statewide, and seven of them are in Central Florida. These doctors are in every major city in Florida: Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Tallahassee. There are even a few doctors from out of state who took the course.
PEDDIE: Is there a concern that patients could doctor shop for medical marijuana?
ABE: Well, keep in mind, this is low-THC medical marijuana we’re talking about right now, so theoretically, there shouldn’t be much black market demand for it. But legislators did have that fear as well, given Florida’s Pill Mill history. Legislators included a patient registry into the bill, and law enforcement is able to tap into that database as well.
PEDDIE: Can patients smoke this medical marijuana?
ABE: No, patients can’t smoke medical marijuana, but the use of vaporizers, something like the e-cigarettes you see people puffing on, that would be an allowable use.
PEDDIE: So this bill was enacted in June 2014. Why has Florida taken this long to issue those five licenses to grow medical marijuana?
ABE: There have been two major legal challenges to how the Florida Department of Health was going to implement medical marijuana. Florida envisioned five soup-to-nuts licenses, and there are very strict requirements to even apply. These nurseries had to be in business for at least 30 years, and must be growing at least 400,000 plants per year. So that significantly cut down who could apply. And these licenses are potentially very lucrative.
PEDDIE: Do we know how lucrative?
ABE: Well no one really knows how big the low-THC medical marijuana market could be until we get hard numbers. But if Florida fully legalized medical marijuana as other states have done, it could be a $785 million industry annually. That’s according to the National Cannabis Industry Association, based on the experiences in other states.
PEDDIE: And we’ll touch on that broader legalization in a minute. First, what do we know about Knox Nursery, which will be growing the medical marijuana for the Central Florida region.
ABE: I actually first met the owner Bruce Knox back when Orange County was considering medical marijuana zoning. Knox was on the committee that negotiated the rules for the Florida Department of Health. Knox Nursery is a family nursery in Winter Garden that’s been growing plants since the 1960s. They actually produce 125 million plants annually. Here’s Knox in a video he submitted as part of his application. He’s talking about technology the nursery would use to speed up cultivation.
“This will be the same way we process medical marijuana here and plant it,” Knox said. “What it does is it stabilizes immediately where we can transplant it at a quicker stage so our ability to turn the crop faster will be enhanced with this technology.”
ABE: Now, we did as Knox to come on Intersection, but he declined for the time being. And that’s because we’re still in the window where a competing nursery could sue to undo the Department of Health’s award of that license.
PEDDIE: So we could still see more lawsuits slowing down medical marijuana in Florida?
ABE: Absolutely. In fact, 3 Boys Farm in Southwest Florida has told the state it will challenge the award in that region. So right now, we’re looking at next summer for patients possibly getting low-THC medical marijuana, but those lawsuits put an asterisk on that date.
PEDDIE: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Abe Aboraya, 90.7 Health Reporter, and we’re talking about medical marijuana in Florida. We’ve talked about the Florida Legislature has done. What’s happening right now?
ABE: So you may remember that Florida passed the Right To Try act. This allows Floridians with a terminal illness to try experimental drugs not approved by the FDA. Senate Bill 160 would expand that list of experimental drugs to include medical marijuana.
“It simply adds medical cannabis to the list of investigational drugs that would be available to individuals at end of life,” said Senator Rob Bradley, who sponsored the bill.
PEDDIE: Does this bill expand the types of medical marijuana available?
ABE: Because this bill doesn’t regulate the THC level available in medical marijuana, it could be full-strength medical marijuana. Now lawmakers still don’t want this to be smoke-able medical marijuana, but if this ultimately becomes law, it would be a significant expansion of the kinds of medical marijuana available in Florida.
PEDDIE: Has there been opposition to this bill?
ABE: I listened in to its hearing last week, and no one spoke to the committee against. But Josephine Cannella-Kiehl, a social worker, spoke to the committee. She says the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“I am respectfully imploring that you all strongly consider the creation of an infrastructure that will give patients access to full-spectrum, whole plant cannabis,” Josephine Cannella-Kiehl. “Terminally ill patients should have the right to access whole plant medicine without stipulations on THC levels or routes of administration.”
ABE: And Senator Darren Soto, a Kissimmee Democrat, is cosponsoring the bill. He actually wanted to expand the number of nurseries who would be able to grow medical marijuana in Florida.
“I just think we have to be careful about establishing monopolies with four, five, six, some small number of nurseries, when we have a lot of good nurseries out in our community, including in and around Central Florida,” Soto said.
PEDDIE: So what’s the latest with that bill?
ABE: Senate Bill 460 has cleared two committee meetings unanimously, and has one more to go.
PEDDIE: What about Florida medical marijuana ballot amendment?
ABE: Yes, that’s the one more people would be familiar with. The Florida Right To Medical Marijuana Initiative. This would legalize medical marijuana for debilitating medical conditions. That includes cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s and, quote, other conditions a where a doctor believes the medical use of marijuana outweighs the potential health risks.”
PEDDIE: And that amendment was narrowly defeated in 2014.
ABE: That’s right. While nearly 58 percent of voters wanted this amendment to pass, in Florida the magic number is 60 percent to become part of the constitution. Orlando Attorney John Morgan is the main financial backer of this campaign, putting in more than $3.5 million dollars. Here he is speaking at a press conference the day after the amendment failed.
“Florida is a big state, it’s gonna be the biggest state in the presidential election, and I know for a fact that the National Republican Party does not want this on that ballot in 2016,” Morgan said.
PEDDIE: Who was against the initiative?
ABE: The Drug Free Florida Coalition had Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Medical Association lined up against the amendment. That group was funded with $5 million from casino and hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson. They argued that the amendment was too broad, that anyone who wanted pot would be able to get pot, that there weren’t any age restrictions, and that pot shops would pop up like pill mills.
PEDDIE: What’s the latest on the campaign to get this back on the ballot in 2016?
ABE: So far United For Care has collected 850,000 signatures. They want collect 1 million, and that’s because they have to have more than 683,000 signatures verified by the state.
“A little more than half of the signatures we need have been verified,” said Ben Pollara with United For Care.
“We have about 400,000 signatures posted online. We fully expect to be back on the 2016 ballot by the end of this month.”
PEDDIE: So what’s changed from the 2014 ballot to the 2016 ballot?
ABE: Pollara says they clarified that the law is only for debilitating medical conditions and narrowed the scope. They included a parental consent and that the Florida Department of Health must verify that consent.
PEDDIE: How much money has been spent on this campaign?
ABE: Just this year alone, United For Care has raised more than $2.2 million, and they’ve spent most that. Pollara says Morgan is still the biggest backer, and they’re spending most of that money getting those signatures. Drug Free Florida hasn’t raised any money this year, but that’s not surprising. That campaign didn’t start spending serious money until the September before the 2014 election.
-- Reporter Abe Aboraya is part of WMFE in Orlando. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.