Broward County

Hundreds speak out on medical marijuana, and they don’t like the rules

New medical marijuana regulations proposed by state health officials would block patients from timely and affordable access to medication, restrict physicians in treating their patients, and potentially undercut the development and distribution of quality medicine, an overflow crowd told Florida Department of Health officials Tuesday morning in Fort Lauderdale.

Hundreds turned out for a public hearing off Marina Mile called to seek comment on the proposed rules for the regulation of a new constitutional amendment opening up the state’s limited medical marijuana program. By an overwhelming margin, they were critical.

A first draft issued last month by the health department would largely squeeze the broad program contemplated by Amendment 2, which passed in November with 71 percent support, into an existing system created in 2014 to legalize cannabis use for a small number of patients.

Christian Bax, director of Florida’s Office of Compassionate Use, which oversees Florida’s medical marijuana program, stressed that the guidelines issued in January are just a draft. It’s also possible they’ll be mostly preempted by bills currently moving through the legislative process in Tallahassee.

“This is not the rule that’s going into effect,” he said, starting off the meeting. “That’s the whole point of public comment.”

We welcome your insight

Christian Bax, director of Florida’s Office of Compassionate Use

For most who turned out at the department’s Fort Lauderdale headquarters — which was forced to open an overflow room to accommodate the large crowd — that would be a relief. Among the issues raised during the two-hour hearing:

▪ Rules limiting the cultivation and distribution of cannabis to the current seven licensed companies would restrict the number of strains and products available to patients, and inflate the price of products that remain illegal under federal law and therefore aren’t covered by insurance. Heidi Handford, a local consultant in the industry, said some patients have told her they’re paying up to $5,000 a year for legal medicine, making it much cheaper to simply buy pot illegally.

▪ A proposal to limit the new qualifying conditions ignores the intent of the amendment to give doctors leeway to treat debilitating and painful ailments. Several physicians said a plan to give the state’s Board of Medicine control over new conditions puts a medical decision in the hands of an administrative and political body.

Marijuana could be used to treat cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, PTSD, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, under the state’s proposed rule.

▪ A plan to continue to require patients to wait 90 days after first seeing a qualifying doctor before receiving access to cannabis delays their access to treatment and frequently keeps terminal patients from receiving treatment before they die.

I can see a patient the first day, assess them, and decide if they need an opiate

Honey Milestone, gynecologist

“I can see a patient the first day, assess them, and decide if they need an opiate,” Honey Milestone, a gynecologist, noted.

Anthony Hall, a neurosurgeon, said the cost of medical marijuana also limits the ability of the poor to pay for it, meaning minorities are disproportionately affected. “I’ve registered two black patients. They just can’t afford this medication.”

A number of speakers in the audience, many of them encouraged to attend by Florida for Care, the group that pushed Amendment 2, urged the state to adopt regulations that mirror a bill proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, who wants to legalize smoking marijuana flower and open up the marijuana industry to competition.

Several in the audience referred to themselves as cannabis “refugees” — having fled Florida to seek treatment in other states that have opened up medicinal programs. Steven Smith, whose young son lost a battle with brain cancer a little more than a year ago, said processed marijuana products vastly improved his last few years of life after the Smith family moved to Colorado.

“My son was riding a tricycle through the hospital while waiting for a bone marrow transplant,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for THC, my son would have had four years of chemo instead of three years of fun.”

The input wasn’t all about loosening regulations.

Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho urged the state to consider distance requirements from schools, the ban of any child-like packaging, and language that would allow school employees to administer the medicine as they do with other medications. Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, who worked in Colorado when that state opened up its medical program, said police need to have access to the state’s registry in order to verify claims of legal use.

Under Amendment 2, the Department of Health has until July to adopt its implementing rules. Officials will continue to hold public hearings this week as it crafts its guidelines, heading to Orlando, Tampa and Tallahassee.

Anyone who missed Tuesday’s hearing in Fort Lauderdale can still submit comments online at www.floridahealth.gov.

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