The original proposal targeted only a limited number of children with debilitating seizures, but the bill’s final wording means Florida will be taking a much larger step toward legalizing medical marijuana.
“It is very important to me to have cancer as a qualifying ailment,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, who sponsored the original House bill and shepherded many of the last-minute changes, including the cancer addition.
Gov. Rick Scott said last week he would approve the bill, but his office on Tuesday did not comment on the changes.
If Scott signs the measure, the Florida Department of Health would select and license five companies — one in each corner of the state and in Central Florida — to grow a marijuana variety bred to have a low content of the THC chemical that can get people high and a high content of the CBD chemical that is thought to improve nerve-cell function and shows promise in treating malignant tumors.
The companies would be able to harvest the plants and extract an oil first commercially introduced in Colorado under the brand name “Charlotte’s Web.” And they would be able to sell the oil in their own dispensaries, which the state could authorize throughout Florida.
As early as Jan. 1, Florida doctors could start registering patients to buy and use the oil if the patient is “suffering from cancer or a physical medical condition that chronically produces symptoms of seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasms,” according to the revised bill.
Medical-marijuana opponents say they are concerned about expanding the range of potential abuses.
“Would a physician treating someone for nonmalignant skin cancer be able to place an order? What about someone who has persistent leg cramps?” said Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs.
The final bill still is far from creating the kind of broad medical-marijuana legalization that Florida voters will consider in November when they decide Amendment 2.
Unlike the Charlotte’s Web bill, the ballot initiative would not limit THC content; it would legalize smokable marijuana; and it would authorize treatment of a much broader range of diseases.
Still, the bill — the final version was known as substitute Senate Bill 1030 — creates a state regulatory, licensing and oversight bureaucracy that could serve as the framework to support Amendment 2 if it is approved, or to handle future expansions of medical marijuana authorized by the Legislature.
Gaetz called the bill “a start” and said he expects it to be built upon.
He said he still would like to see Florida address conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which this bill does not. He also acknowledged that the low THC — limited to 0.8 percent of the oil — would make the oil ineffective for other treatments, including relieving the nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy.
However, he said he shared colleagues’ concerns that higher-THC medical marijuana has led to widespread abuses in other states such as California and Colorado.
“We have to understand the very difficult challenge of creating a unique Florida medical-marijuana paradigm,” Gaetz said.
The late rewrite cost a few votes, including state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will be next year’s Senate president, but not enough to threaten its passage.
There also were some backers of Amendment 2, including state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, who said the bill would give the Republican-led Legislature a chance to call Amendment 2 unnecessary while still looking sympathetic to people who think medical marijuana could help them.
She voted against it, and she cited another concern, that the selection criteria of the five companies appears to “carve out” opportunities for specific individuals.
Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United For Care, which is campaigning for Amendment 2, welcomed the late changes but said they’re not nearly enough, especially because of the low THC level.
“We are glad the Legislature’s medical-marijuana bill includes a broad range of conditions that it initially did not. However, simply including these ailments as qualifying does not mean that Floridians affected by them will actually see relief from SB1030,” Pollara said. “Many of the medicinal benefits of marijuana come from the ‘entourage effect’ of the whole plant, rather than isolated chemicals.”