Florida’s Republican-Controlled Legislature is Holding up Access to Medical Marijuana

Written by: Jack Woodhouse, Collaborative Author: Dawn Robertson

Florida just can’t seem to get their medical marijuana laws in place, and the lagging Republican-controlled Legislature is to blame.

In a blatant disregard for 71% of voters’ wishes, the Florida Legislature is considering several restrictions to the constitutional amendment that would grant medical marijuana access to patients with serious medical conditions. Added after-the-fact to the recently approved Amendment 2, the most concerning of these restrictions includes a requirement that patients must be under the care of a doctor for at least 90 days before receiving a medical marijuana prescription. The rewrite also included a prohibition on some effective treatment methods, and it strictly banned all public use of medical cannabis.

Currently, the law allows the use of low-THC cannabis for patients with cancer or conditions that cause chronic seizures or severe spasms (as long as it’s not smoked). November’s amendment proposed the formal legalization of medical marijuana, permitting more medical cannabis options for patients, and it increased access for individuals with a wider range of conditions, such as chronic pain disorders and opioid addiction.

Long Road

Despite the overwhelming support of its citizens, the long road to medical marijuana in Florida has been far from smooth. November’s amendment – which would have also provided access to medical marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Multiple sclerosis – is battling the some of the same obstacles that were seen in popular amendments that were responsible for slowing redistricting and land conservation in Florida. In short, this is not the first time that Florida’s lawmakers have put their own priorities and opinions above that of their voters.

The value of medical marijuana was succinctly highlighted at a Senate committee meeting in in April when Stephanie Scruggs was speaking on behalf of her husband, Michael Bowen, about marijuana’s effectiveness in treating his epilepsy. Before she could begin her speech, her husband suffered one of the epileptic fits that marijuana has shown to control so well.

Stephanie again represented her husband at the final committee hearing, where the Senate addressed bills that will regulate medical marijuana and implement the recently-passed constitutional amendment. Stephanie thanked the Senate for its work but said that changes had to be made to improve access to medical marijuana and that patients must be permitted to administer marijuana in public, especially in emergencies.

Under the House’s stipulated legislation, if Stephanie was to administer a cannabis-based medicine to her husband in public, via either an edible and vaporizer, perhaps during the onset of an epileptic seizure, she could be arrested. Unfortunately, following the law could prove to be fatal for her husband. Legislation is essentially forcing her to choose.

Of course, Stephanie and her husband are not the only ones impacted. From 2014 to 2015, the state saw a 22.5% increase in opioid overdose. When considering cannabis’s ability to reduce the need for (or even replace) harmful opioids, you would think the Florida Legislature would be eager to get a medical marijuana law in place – especially since the plant may also be effective in treating opioid addiction.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, legislation continues to hold onto an outdated and harmful opinion of cannabis. In fact, ever since the passing of Amendment 2, Florida State Legislature has been dragging its feet in implementing laws and regulations for the proposed medical marijuana industry. This has left Floridians with still no access to medical marijuana for more than half a year. It is downright preposterous, and Floridians know it.

What’s the Holdup?

Why is it that, all these months later, the medical marijuana laws are not in place and the industry is non-existent? Is it poor planning? Sabotage by the anti-marijuana lobby? Pressure from big pharma? Maybe it’s a mix of all three.

After the landslide win for medical marijuana, the list of approved medical conditions has shrunk, and the length of the laws have increased. Meanwhile, the number of patients who are actually able to access medicinal marijuana has decreased.

Medical marijuana advocates across the state, including Stephanie Scruggs and her husband, are supporting the Florida Senate bill (SB 406). Sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, SB 406 offers fewer restrictions than The Florida House bill (HB 1397), which was sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues. That bill proposed an outlaw on edibles and vaping, and it banned the administration of medical marijuana products in public. It also just so happens to be backed by an organization called the Drug-Free America Foundation.

A Step in the Right Direction

At the final committee hearings in April, Scruggs admonished the House panel and urged it to stop thinking of medical marijuana patients as “a bunch of stoners and hippies” (Sweeney, 2017). Her statement may have held some sway over the panel, as a few days later the Florida House made sweeping changes to its legislation.

Hopes are that the state lawmakers are now closing in on an agreement on medical marijuana laws and regulations. “We have listened and we have worked hard to create a patient-centered process,” said Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues. “We believe this bill makes it easier for patients to obtain their medical marijuana” (Auslen, 2017).

Under the latest changes, patients with chronic pain can be prescribed cannabis, but only if their pain is linked to another debilitating condition. Marijuana dispensaries can sell edibles and vape products, but smoking will not be permitted. Further, the amendment that would have required at least three months of care by a physician has been removed. However, patients will still need to visit their doctor at least every seven months if they wish to remain in the database of qualified patients.

The second round of changes also stipulates that the term “medical use” means the administration of medicine by a certified physician. Additionally, the “possession, use, or administration of marijuana that was not purchased or acquired from a medical marijuana treatment center” will remain illegal. This, and the fact that using marijuana in any way in public will still be a crime, shows the House still has a long way to go before the desires of Florida’s inhabitants will be fulfilled.

Negotiations are ongoing (at the time of writing), and the House’s changes are the product of discussions between the House and the Senate. It may not be perfect, and there is still a lot more that could be done to ensure patients can access the medicine they need, but it still a step in the right direction. We can only hope that, going forward, the state legislature listens to the voice of its people and recognizes the flaws of its outdated and potentially harmful viewpoints.

EMMJ Newsletter

Get connected with Everything Medical Marijuana by signing up for our free newsletter