This week on Florida Matters, we are taking a look at some of the issues lawmakers are expected to take up during the upcoming 60-day session.
We will preview the top legislative priorities for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, including a call to fund two new nursing homes for veterans; testing in Florida public schools; the real chances for expanding how telemedicine is practiced in the state; the push to license music therapists; the billions of dollars at stake for health care for the poor; and a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida.
One issue that's sure to come up this year is medical marijuana. In Novembers, voters defeated a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. It fell just short of the 60 percent threshold to pass.
The latest proposal to make marijuana available for medical use in Florida comes from state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Saint Petersburg.
"Amendment Two really was kind of a take it or leave it offer,” said Brandes, who believes the place to work out the details is in the Legislature. "A better way to do it right now is to go through statute, be thoughtful, and really create a Florida specific medical cannabis law."
The Florida Medical Marijuana Act would allow patients suffering from certain conditions or symptoms to get access to marijuana if they are "certified" by their physician.
"This is really kind of going in with what I think is really the best of all the 23 other states' legislation, trying to pull it together to do something that I think is reasonable for Florida, and really give a chance for all the other legislators to understand and thoughtfully ask questions and for it to be fully reviewed,” Brandes said.
Meanwhile, Calvina Fay, the executive director of St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation, said she doesn’t think the measure will pass.
"There are many, many reasons why we would be concerned about a bill like this passing in our state, and we will do everything we can to educate people about those potential consequences, and hopefully people will reject it,” Fay said. "There's a lot coming out right now on this issue of marijuana as a so-called medicine, a lot of very bad stuff. A lot of abuses, a lot of new research showing that marijuana is not the benign drug that people thought it to be."
When it comes to smoking marijuana, the official position from Drug Free America is Florida doesn't need to make marijuana more available.
"The THC in marijuana, which science has shown to be of value as a medicine, that THC has already been extracted from marijuana and turned into a synthetic form and has gone through the FDA process,” Fay said. “It has been prescribed for decades now under the name Marinol."
During the last legislative session, Florida lawmakers approved a specific type of marijuana. It's a non-euphoric strain of cannabis known as "Charlotte's Web" that's expected to be used to treat seizures in children. But the Florida Department of Health is still hashing out the rules of the new Charlotte's Web law, and that, according to Senate President Andy Gardiner, could complicate things for the Brandes bill.
“It’s been tied up in rulemaking in the department, so there might be a challenge of how much you do this year when you haven’t even implemented what we did last May,” Gardiner said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri supported the Charlotte's Web bill last year, which got its name from a popular brand of low-THC marijuana oil.
"You take the recreational use out of it, you take that social value out of it,” Gualtieri said. “I don't see anybody sitting around on a Saturday night with the strobe lights going, saying 'Oh wow, let's rub oil on our hands,' but what they want to do, is they want it in smokeable form."
And that's where the proposal from Brandes falls apart for Gualtieiri, because the bill allows marijuana to be smoked.
"That's where the abuse comes from, and I'm totally opposed to anything that will allow abuse or recreational use,” Gualtieri said.
In the Florida House, lawmakers have also introduced a medical marijuana bill, one that doesn't allow it to be smoked. But if nothing comes out of the Florida Legislature on legalizing marijuana for medical use, that doesn't mean the push is going away.
United For Care, the group that campaigned for Amendment Two in 2014, is already gathering signatures to get the issue back on the ballot in 2016.
The preview of this and other issues will air on WUSF 89.7 FM on Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 6:30 p.m., March 1 at 7:30 a.m. and at wusf.org/floridamatters.