Pot amendment puts cloud over anti-seizure marijuana debate
Backers of a non-euphoric strain of cannabis that helps reduce seizures in children aren't giving up on a legislative fix, but the politics of pot could make their uphill battle even steeper.
A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court on Monday approved a ballot initiative that would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, rejecting arguments from Attorney General Pam Bondi, Republican legislative leaders and others that the proposal was misleading and would give doctors broad discretion over who would qualify for the pot.
Opposition to the medical marijuana proposal, which will be on the November ballot, could jeopardize the passage of a legislative measure that would legalize a marijuana extract known as "Charlotte's Web" that proponents believe can dramatically reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy. Florida is one of a handful of states including Georgia where Republican-led legislatures are grappling with making the strain legal.
Charlotte's Web is an extract of the marijuana derivative cannabidiol, or CBD, but is low in the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The strain is oil-based, can be taken orally and doesn't get users high, unlike the medical marijuana that would be authorized under the constitutional proposal.
Backers of Charlotte's Web are trying to draw clear lines between the two types of medical marijuana with the aim of legislative approval in Florida this spring.
Even if the medical marijuana amendment receives the 60 percent approval necessary for passage, it could be years before pot is available to patients in Florida.
That's too long to wait, said Peyton Moseley, whose 10-year-old adopted daughter RayAnn is one of an estimated 125,000 children in Florida diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that can cause hundreds of seizures a day.
Legislative authorization "is still our daughter's and 125,000 other Floridians' best chance at getting this life-changing medicine quickly," Moseley said after Monday's court ruling. "Having the full-on legalization of medical marijuana on the ballot in November is fine and good, but if your child’s life depended on her gaining access to a certain kind of medicine, would you want to leave that decision in the hands of the voters?"
But the court's decision to put the prescription pot question on the ballot could pose a conundrum for conservative lawmakers, already skeptical of the non-euphoric strain.
"I think after people analyze it they are going to kind of line up. They'll either say there is a right way involving these derivatives and there's a wrong way and contrast it with the amendment. Or they'll say people are going to get this all mixed up and think I'm for (medical marijuana). … It depends how their district reads and how they want to be seen," said House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Baxley has thwarted an attempt by House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, who introduced the issue by holding a workshop on it last month, to include legalization of Charlotte's Web in a larger committee bill. Baxley's move means Charlotte's Web would have to be approved in a stand-alone bill, which could be harder to pass. Gaetz said he intends to press ahead and that his colleagues should, too.
"I always think that politicians err when they try to start to treat the public like intellectual inferiors. It's pretty condescending and patronizing to say that we're not going to help 125,000 children with intractable epilepsy because we're worried that the public is going to be confused," Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said.
Another key distinction between the two types of medical marijuana is the potential universe of patients, said Gaetz. State economists estimated in October that about 1.5 million Floridians could be eligible for medical marijuana. Between 125,000 and 250,000 Floridians have disorders that could benefit from Charlotte's Web, Gaetz said.
"The proposed constitutional amendment will put a dispensary in every neighborhood. My proposal wouldn't. No one will be building marijuana dispensaries if CBD is legal," he said.
While GOP leaders including Gov. Rick Scott have expressed empathy for families like the Moseleys, none have definitively said the Legislature should act.
"The governor feels for families struggling with terrible illness. The FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is currently evaluating the safety and effectiveness of the medication and the governor is hopeful that families will get relief from the impacts of these serious illnesses in the safest possible way," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an e-mail on Tuesday.
But Moseley, who with his wife Holley started the non-profit organization "Caring 4 Florida" to lobby for the bill and provide support to other families, said Scott is confused. Clinical trials are being tested on a similar drug called Epidiolex, which also contains CBD but, unlike Charlotte's Web, does not contain THC.
"With a person dying every 10 minutes from epilepsy related issues, the reality is that our kids don't have three to five years to wait on clinical trials," Moseley said.
And, Moseley said, his daughter RayAnn has been prescribed a variety of medications that never received FDA approval for children.
"There's less THC in this than a lot of things on our shelves at Publix," Moseley said. "I think there's such a negative connotation with the word cannabis or marijuana. People just have that embedded in their brains. That's really our job, to explain to people what's going on."
If Gaetz, the Moseleys and other families "are successful in getting that across," Baxley said, "then they'll have a success story here."
But, he cautioned, "if it gets all wrapped up in (the initiative), it could be more problematic."
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