TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Less than three months after Florida voters narrowly rejected a plan to legalize medical marijuana, a Republican senator Monday filed a bill that would allow patients to get pot if they suffer from diseases such as cancer, AIDS, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.
The proposal (SB 528), filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, includes a detailed regulatory structure that would place requirements on patients, doctors, growers and retail stores. Patients could only get "medical-grade" marijuana if their physicians sign off on the need.
"Many groups have been working on this initiative for quite some time, and my goal is to work openly with all of the interested parties on this issue so that we can pass responsible legislation that provides relief to those Floridians in need,'' Brandes said in a prepared statement.
Medical marijuana has been a heavily debated topic in Florida for more than a year, primarily because of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized the substance. That amendment received support from 57.6 percent of voters during the November election, slightly short of the 60 percent needed to pass ballot initiatives.
Backers of the constitutional amendment made clear they would continue trying to legalize medical pot, either through the Legislature or another ballot proposal in 2016. It is unclear, however, whether Brandes can gain the support of Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott to get the bill approved during the annual session that starts March 3.
"Senate Bill 528 is a very good start and we believe one that would serve as a huge step forward for Florida's suffering patients and their families,'' the group United For Care, which has led efforts to pass a constitutional amendment, said in an email to supporters Monday. "This bill proves that the massive support we received in the last election --- 58% of voters --- plus our quick work to bring the petition back for 2016 is getting recognized by reasonable legislators like Senator Brandes."
The November ballot proposal drew opposition from groups such as the Florida Sheriffs Association. A spokeswoman said Monday the sheriffs association could not comment because it was still reviewing Brandes' bill.
Under the proposal, physicians could "certify" to the Florida Department of Health that patients qualify for medical marijuana and send an order for the drug to an electronic registry. Patients who suffer from cancer, HIV, AIDS, epilepsy, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease or Parkinson's disease would qualify if they receive certification from their doctors.
Also, patients could qualify if they have conditions that lead them to chronically suffer from symptoms such as wasting syndrome, severe and persistent pain, severe and persistent nausea, persistent seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasms, according to the bill.
The proposal also provides a framework for the Department of Health to issue licenses to growers, processors and retail stores. It would require the department to issue cultivating and processing licenses by March 1, 2016, and retail licenses by July 1, 2016.
The bill, however, would take into account local communities that don't want retail marijuana stores. It says the department could not "license any retail facilities in a county unless the board of county commissioners for that county determines by ordinance the number and location of any retail facilities that may be located within that county."
The detailed regulation in the bill could help prevent a repeat of the uncertainty that has surrounded a far more limited medical-marijuana bill that lawmakers approved last year. That bill, signed by Scott, legalized strains of cannabis that purportedly do not get users high. Those strains are low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD.
Backers touted last year's bill largely as a way to help children who suffer from a severe form of epilepsy. But efforts to carry out the measure have been slowed by legal and regulatory battles.
The Epilepsy Foundation of Florida on Monday issued a statement thanking Brandes, along with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, who led efforts to pass last year's bill.
"Our compassion is why we trust and defend the decisions doctors and patients make together to ease pain and suffering,'' foundation Chief Executive Officer Karen Basha Egozi said. "As the largest organization in Florida supporting those living with epilepsy, we support anything that improves their lives."
AUTHOR: JIM SAUNDERS
CONTRIBUTOR: MARGIE MENZEL