Regulators hear more complaints about medical pot rules

RFID tags mark which plants are for retail or medical use.
RFID tags mark which plants are for retail or medical use. MCT

Florida’s attempt to draft a medical marijuana rule ran into another buzz-saw of complaints Friday as potential growers lamented being forced to truck their product across the state and investors warned that a lottery to select pot producers will scare away qualified companies.

The comments came at the second workshop held by the state Department of Health to get feedback from marijuana industry hopefuls about a proposed rule allowing for the legal cultivation of low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and high in CBD (cannabidiol) for patients with seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms and cancer.

Florida legislators passed the law last spring legalizing the special strain of marijuana and ordered that five dispensaries must be in operation by Jan. 1 to start selling to patients who are put on a state-run “compassionate use registry.”

But for every complaint from prospective business owners Friday, there was a plea from parents of children desperate to get medical marijuana to treat their sick and epileptic kids.

“Let’s remember why we’re here,’’ said Dennis Deckerhoff, whose child has intractable epilepsy. “We can spend a lot of time making this thing perfect. I think it’s pretty doggone good what we’re doing.”

Seth Hyman of Weston, whose eight-year-old daughter can have dozens of seizures a day, urged regulators to move hastily.

“For families like us, we want this to happen as quickly as possible but, at the same time, we believe Florida needs to get it right,’’ he said.

More than 200 people signed up to speak at Friday’s workshop as lobbyists representing manufacturers, testing labs, nurserymen, and investors are hoping to get a foothold into the business now in the event that voters approve Amendment 2 on the ballot in November, which would legalize broader use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Regulators revised the rule after the first workshop and agreed to allow each of the five organizations licensed to cultivate and develop the medical marijuana product to distribute it by truck or van across the state. In return, they have heightened the standards for who will be eligible to apply for the license.

Jennifer Tschetter, general counsel for the Department of Health, which is drafting the rule, said the decision was a compromise to address concerns that limiting each dispensing organization to one site, it was creating a virtual monopoly in each region.

“Our goal is to get the product to patients as soon as possible,’’ she said.

But several speakers said that requiring nurseries to truck their product throughout the state would be expensive, dangerous for patients and drivers, and inefficient.

“You have a valuable drug product and a lot of cash. There’s a tremendous amount of risk in that delivery process,” said Robert Wallace, an owner of Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua. “Are we going to have to send a driver with a Brinks truck, with an armored vehicle or wearing a gun for protection?”

DOH also modified the rule to allow nurseries to partner with other entrepreneurs and investors as long as they have at least 25 percent ownership in the company.

The change, Tschetter said, was intended to address a fear by nurseries that they were putting too much of their assets at risk.

“The nursery will be an integral player but need not put all its resources on the line,’’ she said.

The change is likely to increase the number of applicants to the state-run lottery, but concerns persist that it could mean less emphasis on growing and extracting a quality product for sick people who qualify to use the drug. 

Several speakers repeated their concerns that the state should decide which applicants could provide the best product to patients most quickly before it chooses who will get the license through a lottery.

Paige Figi, the mother of Charlotte Figi who is the first child to use low-THC marijuana to treat epilepsy, urged regulators to seek a qualitative review of applicants. “I really hope this is done properly,’’ she said.  

Charles Brink, chairman of Tampa-based Full Spectrum Laboratories which has contracts to test marijuana in Canada and Colorado, warned that the process set up by Florida regulators will be financially too risky for qualified companies to get in.

“It is financially impossible to make this law work because the population isn’t large enough,’’ he said. “You are burdening growers.”

But department officials have said they want to retain the lottery system to avoid protracted legal fights.

Tschetter said the goal of the agency is to enable the cultivation of low-THC marijuana at least 75 days after the rule is adopted and make the product available to patients within 150 days.

Under the proposed rules, the plants must be organically grown in a climate-appropriate environment with odor control and in a place where plants are protected from public view.

“We want to make sure we’re pretty clear it’s not the shed out back,’’ Tschetter said.

The low-THC product extracted from the plants will be rigorously tested at a state-approved lab which will test the THC and CBD levels and look for any indication of mold and heavy metals.

If the testing lab results show that the THC and CBD levels are outside the requirements in the law, the entire batch must be destroyed.