Seriously sick Floridians and those who can’t find adequate prescription drugs would be allowed access to medical-grade marijuana under a major cannabis bill filed Monday by a top Florida Republican state senator.
St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes’ 28-page legislation, the most far-reaching of its kind by a top legislative leader, seeks to regulate the cultivation, distribution and use of medical marijuana in Florida.
The bill mirrors parts of a proposed constitutional amendment that garnered 57.6 percent of the vote. That amendment, which failed because it didn’t meet a 60 percent threshold for approval, has been redrafted and could appear on the 2016 ballot.
Brandes said he opposed the amendment, largely because he thought the Legislature should be in charge of making such a major change to healthcare and criminal law in Florida.
“We should allow for physicians and patients to make decisions about their medical care,” Brandes said. “It’s about the physician-patient relationship — for me, that’s the compelling reason. You hear stories of people struggling.”
The proponents of the medical-marijuana constitutional amendment cheered Brandes’ proposal.
Floridians have spoken on the issue of medical marijuana and Sen. Brandes has heard them, said Ben Pollara, the executive director of the United for Care group that has back the proposed amendments.
This is a tremendous step towards passing a medical marijuana law without having to bring the issue back to voters in 2016, Pollara said.
Before the United for Care proposals, medical-marijuana was stifled by the GOP-led Legislature.
But after the amendment was headed for the 2014 ballot, the Legislature passed a scaled-back law that only legalized a low-THC strain of marijuana that’s often used to treat people with epilepsy. That law, nicknamed Charlotte’s Web, hasn’t gone into effect because it has been bound up in court challenges and bureaucratic red tape.
Because Florida’s Charlotte’s Web law is so restrictive, the Sunshine State isn’t counted among the 23 that have legalized cannabis for medical use. Four of those states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have legalized the drug for non-medical use along with Washington DC.
Under Brandes’ legislation, qualified patients could receive as much as a 30-day supply of marijuana from a licensed, regulated facility as long as they were properly examined by a physician, who would have to write a prescription-like recommendation for the drug.
Whether Republican Gov. Rick Scott would sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law is too early to tell. Scott, who reversed course last year and opted to sign the Charlotte’s Web bill into law, often doesn’t comment on pending legislation, especially in its early stages.
Brandes, the chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee and a member of its criminal justice committee, said he believes more people should have the right to access marijuana as long as it’s properly regulated and recommended by a physician. He said he expects to have a House sponsor for the legislation in the coming weeks. The 60-day legislative session begins in March.
“I’ve talked to the governor directly. I’ve talked to the Senate president,” Brandes said. “I’ve talked to the leadership in the House — not the speaker, but the leadership — and I think they’re open minded. I’m not going to say it’s a slam dunk.”
Conservatives still have grave reservations about changing marijuana laws in Florida.
In Brandes’ home town, the Drug Free America Foundation is a bulwark of opposition to medical marijuana. The foundation was founded by former U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler, who helped spearhead the Drug Free Florida committee that opposed the medical-marijuana amendment in 2014.
After the election, however, Republicans took note of the broad support for medical marijuana.
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, told the Bradenton Herald last week that the issue had a better shot of passing this year.
It would need to be very strictly regulated, Steube told the paper. We would want the bill to say, ’Here are the medical issues you can take it for, that’s it.
Brandes’ bill does spell out these specific medical conditions: cancer, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe and persistent pain, severe and persistent nausea, persistent seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms.
Those people who suffer from these ailments would be allowed access to medical marijuana.
The legislation goes a step further by allowing physicians to recommend cannabis for patients who suffer from other ailments and who have exhausted other remedies and medicines to alleviate their suffering.
The legislation would give the Department of Health broad authority to set standards for and regulate the cultivation and dispensing of medical marijuana. The legislation seeks to prohibit any marijuana possession at schools or in prisons and would only allow licensed patients or designated caregivers to possess the drug or marijuana paraphernalia for medical use.
To make sure local governments have a say, the legislation say the state can’t license a marijuana retail store in a county without the approval of county commissioners.
Other aspects of the bill, according to Brandes’ office, include:
▪ Each retail facility is a separate license and a single entity may hold more than one retail license. Retail facilities must pay a $10,000 license fee and hold a $1,000,000 bond.
▪ Retail facilities purchase medical-grade marijuana from cultivation and processing facilities that are licensed separately by the department and must pay a $100,000 license fee and hold a $5,000,000 bond.
▪ Cultivation and processing licensees are responsible for the having each batch of medical-grade marijuana tested by an independent laboratory to ensure that it meets the criteria the department sets for health and safety standards and to determine the specific types and concentrations of individual cannabinoids present in that batch.
▪ Each batch of medical grade marijuana must be tested, labeled, and packaged according to the requirements in the act before selling it to retail facilities.
▪ A cultivation and processing licensee may also be issued one or more retail licenses, however, retail operations may not be conducted at the same location as cultivation and processing operations.
▪ All licensed facilities are inspected at licensure and at least once every two years at license renewal by the department.
▪ The patient qualifies for use of medical marijuana if they have been certified by the physician to have a specified medical condition, however if the patient only has a specified severe or chronic symptom the physician must certify that the patient has exhausted available and reasonable medical treatment before qualifying for medical marijuana.
▪ The physician must additionally upload an order for medical-grade marijuana to the medical marijuana patient and caregiver registry which includes:
▪ The amount of medical-grade marijuana the physician recommends as a 30-day supply for that patient; and
▪ Any specific concentrations of individual cannabinoids that must be present to treat the patient’s condition or symptom.
▪ Once certified, the patient may apply for a medical marijuana registry ID card and will be added to the medical marijuana patient and caregiver registry.
▪ The patient may also designate a caregiver who meets the requirements in the act, including background screening for caregivers who are not immediate family members. The caregiver will also receive an ID card and be added to the registry.
▪ The patient or caregiver may purchase medical-grade marijuana that has been tested, packaged, and labeled and that meets the specifications on the physician’s order from a licensed retail facility.
Some of the legislation was based on the experience of the other states that have legalized medical marijuana and on Florida’s experience in trying to implement “Charlotte’s Web.”
Brandes said Charlotte’s Web isn’t enough for Florida, a state with 19 million residents and a significant population of elderly people.
“There are other people who need or want access to medical cannabis,” Brandes said.