TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Facing another legal challenge to the state's attempt to craft a framework for a medical-marijuana industry, a Senate committee moved forward Tuesday with a measure that would jump-start the process after hearing from dozens of speakers who objected that the proposal does not go far enough.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, who was instrumental in passing a law last year that legalized non-euphoric cannabis for patients with cancer or chronic muscle spasms, is pushing a new plan that would expand the types of patients who would be eligible for the treatment. The plan also includes specifics about how the Florida Department of Health would choose nurseries that can grow, process and distribute the substance.
Under the current law, health officials were supposed to begin selecting by Jan. 1 five nurseries to operate as vertically-integrated "dispensing organizations." Those nurseries would have to meet qualifications, such as being in business for at least 30 years and processing a minimum of 400,000 plants. But a judge tossed the department's first attempt at regulations last year, siding with a handful of nurseries and other businesses that objected, among other things, to the use of a lottery to select the licensees because a lottery wasn't included in the law.
Health officials earlier this month took a second stab at the regulations after a rare and exhaustive "negotiated rule-making" workshop. But a lawyer representing a 4-year-old girl with inoperable brain cancer filed a legal challenge to the revised proposal two weeks ago, creating more delays in getting the law implemented. A judge has set an April 14 hearing in the case.
Last year's law was "a promise to families across Florida that had children suffering from as many as 100 seizures a week that we would give them the relief they were asking for," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. "A year has passed and unfortunately we have yet to be able to fulfill this promise that we made to those families, even though we wrote a law that said a system would be in place to deliver the substance by Jan. 1. The purpose of this bill is simple. To deliver on the promise we made last year."
The Department of Health "was given an impossible task," Bradley said he concluded.
Bradley's new proposal, approved by the Regulated Industries Committee in an 11-1 vote Tuesday, would expand the number of licensees to 20 nurseries and broaden the types of eligible patients to include those with multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, HIV and AIDS and a handful of other ailments.
His plan (SB 7066) would also lower a bond required for the applicants from the current $5 million to $1 million, set the initial application fee at $50,000 and the biennial licensure fee at $125,000.
But to the consternation of a standing-room only crowd who nearly all complained that Bradley's proposal won't help them or their children, his current plan does not increase the levels of euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, now limited to .08 percent, or change the amount of cannabadiol, or CBD, now required to make up at least 10 percent of the product.
Moriah Barnhart, whose lawyer filed the challenge to the low-THC pot rule on behalf of her 4-year-old daughter Dahlia, pleaded with the committee to consider expanding the THC levels to benefit children like her daughter, who suffers from inoperable brain cancer and uses a high-THC treatment.
Barnhart said she filed the challenge to speed up the process of implementing the law and does not oppose Bradley's measure but wants more.
"We are desperate. We are desperate to get their medicine here in this state and not have to fear being arrested for saving their lives," Barnhart said.
Former medical-marijuana user Dani Hall told the committee she had been addicted to opiates for years after repeated back surgeries until she began to the pot treatment.
"Medical marijuana saved my life. Literally," Hall said.
But the current law won't do anything for her son, who was diagnosed with autism, Hall said.
"This bill … is simply not good enough. It's not going to help my child," she said.
Others complained that expanding the patient base without expanding the THC levels would do nothing to help patients because the benefits of the low-THC treatment are likely restricted to patients who suffer from seizures.
Bradley has refused to hear in his committee a measure that would legalize full-fledged medical marijuana and has consistently said he wants last year's bill to be implemented before expanding THC levels.
But, at the end of Tuesday's testimony on the bill, the chairman left the door open for that possibility after being questioned by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican.
"I'm not one for ultimatums, and I'm certainly not going to start on this one," Bradley said.
Bradley's measure would also create more specific guidelines for the University of Florida to conduct research on the efficacy of the low-THC treatment, something in last year's law. Research is sparse because, under state law, marijuana is classified along with other dangerous drugs like heroin, he said.
"There is not enough research in this area. There just isn't … because this is a Schedule 1 substance in state law, and frankly it shouldn't be," Bradley, a former prosecutor, said. "We should acknowledge that. That has kept the research from happening."