Health Care

Unlikely FL duo of Shalala and Gaetz want to clear path to medical marijuana research

Marijuana is currently classified in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy, but two Florida members of Congress want to change that.

Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala and Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Republican, on Thursday filed the Expanding Cannabis Research and Information Act, which would reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III controlled substance, akin to Tylenol with codeine or aspirin with butalbital, in order to expand medical research opportunities.

The proposal is the House companion for a bill introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, in July.

Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration who campaigned for Congress last year on a promise to decriminalize marijuana, said she has always been worried about pot’s effect on children but sees the need to change the drug’s classification so its effects can be studied.

“We need to give doctors and other health professionals better guidance, so this bill removes the obstacles for doing that,” Shalala said.

She said the bill would allow more researchers to study the potential benefits of cannabis for certain conditions, determine appropriate dosages and inform medical marijuana legislation being crafted by various state legislatures.

In 2016, about 71% of Florida voters were in favor of a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. Former Gov. Rick Scott signed the amendment into law the following year.

Though there is widespread support for more medical marijuana research, the drug’s classification is a major stumbling block — and may be the toughest part of the bill to get approved, she said.

Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, which means it has a “high potential for abuse,” and even though many states have legalized the drug for medical use, the Schedule I classification has inhibited marijuana research.

There are several federal agencies involved in licensing any medical marijuana study, making it highly difficult for researchers to get a study off the ground. The marijuana also must be obtained from a growhouse at the University of Mississippi, the sole contractor with the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

As former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under former President Bill Clinton, Shalala had jurisdiction over what she called her “pot farm” in Mississippi. She said researchers complained about the marijuana grown there not being of sufficient quality for medical research.

Barry Gordon, a Venice-based licensed marijuana doctor who treats the third-largest group of marijuana patients in Florida, says more research could inform “literally everything about cannabis.” Data from studies could help him better determine the treatments he recommends for patients, who suffer from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and late-stage cancer.

“We see it every day. People are reducing their narcotic pain medications — Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin and Ambien for sleep,” said Gordon, a former emergency room doctor and adviser to state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose office has jurisdiction over medical marijuana regulation. “Patients can feel better with less of the burden of ‘big pharma’ and side effects like constipation and drowsiness.”

Abbey Roudebush, senior manager of government relations and advocacy at The Epilepsy Foundation, said that about 3.4 million Americans live with epilepsy — and research on the uses of marijuana could help them. About one-third of them live with uncontrolled seizures despite the available medications, and stand to benefit from medical marijuana treatment options.

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Roudebush said the epilepsy research community is in a unique position because there is already one FDA-approved cannabis-derived treatment for seizures associated with a rare form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome.

And while it’s already been shown that medical cannabis and CBD can help control seizures in some people, treatment for epilepsy varies from patient to patient, so Roudebush said more robust research is needed.

“We need research in this space to get the answers,” she said. “We need research into appropriate dosing, and possible side effects that might come of it, especially with any possible drug interactions.”

Some doctors, however, have concerns surrounding the rescheduling of the drug.

If the drug becomes a more accepted medication that large pharmaceutical companies take interest in, doctors like Gordon fear state-run medical marijuana programs like Florida’s will lose control.

“You have to be careful what you ask for,” he said. “The big upside is using money and power to do important research, but don’t get in our way while we continue to help patients.”

Changing attitudes on marijuana have sometimes left lawmakers trying to catch up.

Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., leaves after a caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C. House Democrats gathered to discuss the Democratic agenda as the partial government shutdown entered day 19. Alex Wong Getty Images

In 1996, California and Arizona passed the first two medical marijuana laws in the country. At the time, Shalala was HHS secretary and appeared alongside anti-legalization drug czar Barry McCaffrey as the administration responded to state-level reform efforts.

At that press conference, Shalala said “all available research has concluded that marijuana is dangerous to our health. Marijuana harms the brain, the heart, the lungs and our immune system.”

“Marijuana limits learning and memory perception and judgment and our ability to drive a car,” she said. “And marijuana smoke typically contains over 400 compounds, some of which are carcinogenic.”

Shalala told the Miami Herald Friday that those words were focused on children, and that she remains concerned about the effects of marijuana on their developing brains. She said she has remained consistent in that view but has softened on the potential benefits of medical marijuana.

“As we’ve gotten more research and more information from scientists [on medical marijuana], yes I’ve changed my mind, and it’s very important that someone like me changes their mind,” she said.

When the Miami-Dade Democratic Party endorsed the 2014 medical marijuana amendment, Shalala openly criticized the head of the party, saying they shouldn’t get involved in “public health” issues.

But Shalala said that her position in 2014 was the same as it is now: There needs to be more research on medical marijuana.

“I’ve been consistent all along: We need to know what the dosage is, and we need to do research,” Shalala said. “And this bill gives us that opportunity. Everyone has been saying we need to do more research, but no one has stepped up with the guts to remove marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III.”

Ben Pollara, a political consultant who helped pass Florida’s medical marijuana law, says the bipartisan legislation is a “perfect example” of how far marijuana reform has come in both Florida and Congress.

“She did a total 180 in the course of a month in the spring of 2018,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words and Shalala’s conversion on this issue is clearly sincere.”

A previous version of this story misidentified Tylenol and aspirin as Schedule III drugs. Tylenol with codeine and aspirin with butalbital are Schedule III drugs.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
Ben Conarck is a reporter covering healthcare at the Miami Herald, which he joined in August 2019. He was previously an investigative reporter covering criminal justice at The Florida Times-Union. In 2018, he and reporter Topher Sanders recieved Columbia University’s Paul Tobenkin award for outstanding reporting on race and the University of Colorado’s Al Nakkula award for outstanding police reporting for their multi-part investigation “Walking While Black.” Conarck has also extensively covered the Florida prison system.