Broward County

‘Medical necessity’ defense for growing pot wins acquittal in Florida case

Jesse Teplicki waits outside a Broward County courtroom. Teplicki, 51, says he grows marijuana at his Hollywood home for his own medicinal purposes, not to sell to others.
Jesse Teplicki waits outside a Broward County courtroom. Teplicki, 51, says he grows marijuana at his Hollywood home for his own medicinal purposes, not to sell to others. Sun Sentinel

Just about every day for more than 30 years, Jesse Teplicki consumed marijuana in one form or another to ease the relentless symptoms of chronic anorexia nervosa. And for the last decade, he quietly grew and harvested his own supply, even processing the plants into pats of butter.

So by the time police officers, acting on an anonymous tip, came to his Hollywood home two years ago, Teplicki was ready — and open about his pot use. He allowed the two Broward County Sheriff’s deputies into his home, escorting them to the locked garage where he had 16 potted marijuana plants growing. Then he showed them the other 30 plants taking root in his backyard also for personal use.

But Teplicki did not see his arrest — or the manufacturing cannabis criminal charge — as trouble. He saw it as liberation.

“I took a bad moment and said this is going to give me freedom because I feel like a criminal growing this stuff, and now if I can just explain to someone honestly what this is all about,” said Teplicki, 50, a husband and father of three adult children. “So I showed them everything. I hid nothing.”

Two years later, Teplicki would detail his need for medical marijuana at trial, the first time in Florida history such a case was decided by a jury. The “medical necessity” defense was established by the courts nearly 25 years ago, but before Teplicki’s case, it had been argued only in bench trials decided by a judge.

As Florida gingerly steps into the world of medical marijuana, Teplicki’s case is one of at least six across the state in which medical necessity is being used as a defense against charges of growing, possessing or using pot for medicinal purposes.

In a downtown Fort Lauderdale courtroom, Teplicki told the jurors about how often he didn’t have an appetite, about the vomiting, the sleeplessness, the anxiety of his disorder. The Broward jury — two men, four women — acquitted Teplicki in about 35 minutes. Two jurors later told the media that this was a judgment built on compassion. Teplicki faced up to five years in prison.

“This is a man who had been dealing with illness, dealing with a failure to thrive since he was 9 years old,” said Teplicki’s attorney, Michael C. Minardi. “The marijuana is what gave him relief. It works.”

The state Legislature has already approved some non-euphoric medical cannabis strains for medically needy children suffering with intractable seizures, cancer and other serious conditions. That law, called the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, calls for five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state to cultivate marijuana low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that provides the euphoria, but high in cannabidiol, or CBD, the property that can calm seizures.

In 2014, the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, commonly known as Amendment 2 and offering a much broader use of the drug, narrowly failed with about 58 percent of Florida voters’ approval. Sixty percent was required for it to pass.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, introduced legislation allowing wide use of medical marijuana — along with a companion House bill — but the deadline passed for the measures to be scheduled for committee hearings, making it unlikely they will win approval this legislative session.

“The chances are pretty much dead this session,” said Florida for Care Executive Director Ben Pollara, “but I think there is a general acknowledgement that medical marijuana is coming to Florida. The [Amendment 2] measure got 58 percent of the vote in the face of unprecedented negative advertising.”

And, a push is already underway to gather the signatures needed to get a new medical marijuana measure on the 2016 ballot.

The medical marijuana landscape is layered with differing opinions among doctors, legislators, law enforcement and patients — and little scientific evidence. Some of those opposed to it say the science still lags behind the demand for medical cannabis and that Florida’s proposed regulations are ripe for abuse.

Minardi is representing a half-dozen clients across Florida using marijuana for medicinal purposes. One client, Timothy Nelson, who suffers with degenerative disc pain, goes to trial in April. Nelson was charged with possession of cannabis after police discovered about 25 plants growing in his backyard. He faces up to a year behind bars.

“Mr. Nelson had been prescribed hydrocodone and oxycodone for his pain and became addicted. The marijuana relieves the pain and helped him stay away from opioids. He had been growing his own because he wanted to make sure it was safe,” said Minardi, a firm partner at Kelley Kronenberg in West Palm Beach. “I have other clients using it who have [post-traumatic stress disorder], major depression, fibromyalgia and a neurological disorder.”

Teplicki’s health problems began during his childhood. He still has vivid memories of pushing his plate away, of hiding food.

“I wasn’t growing and fell behind my peers as far as height and weight,” said Teplicki, who is a marine technician. “I had this sensitivity to smells and I threw my food away. I also suffered with migraines.”

After his parents took him to see a pediatric endocrinologist, Teplicki was prescribed Anavar, a steroid used to stimulate growth. The medication was effective but began to cause liver scarring and cysts. He turned to a high-calorie diet and supplements.

Teplicki first smoked marijuana months before his 18th birthday, he said. It allowed him what has been a rarity in his life: a good night’s sleep and a healthy appetite without the side effects of nausea or vomiting. Still, Teplicki continued trying prescription medications, most of which simply did not help or made matters worse, he said. It wasn’t long before he began using marijuana as a treatment.

He started growing it on his own about 10 years ago, enough to produce an ounce a week, one-quarter pound a month, three pounds a year.

“They walked into the garage. There was no scale. No money. No ledgers. No baggies, nothing but the plants and the glass jars that I use for my own personal storage,” he said. “For me, this is about survival.”

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