TALLAHASSEE, – Lawmakers are poised to approve legalizing full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients after supporters fought off attempts in the Senate to expand the proposal Friday.
The measure would make full-strength marijuana legal for the first time in Florida by adding cannabis to the list of experimental drugs available to patients diagnosed with illnesses that could result in death within a year without life-saving interventions.
A vote could come as early as Monday, with the bill (HB 307) then going to Gov. Rick Scott. The House approved the bill Thursday.
But most of the Senate discussion Friday focused on another portion of the bill, aimed at resolving problems with a 2014 law that legalized non-euphoric marijuana for patients with cancer or chronic seizures, including children with severe epilepsy.
Doctors were supposed to be able to order the low-THC cannabis products for patients more than a year ago, but legal challenges delayed implementation of the law, spurring frustrated lawmakers to propose the changes in this year's legislation.
Under the 2014 law, nurseries that have been in business for 30 years and grow at least 400,000 plants were eligible to apply for one of five highly sought-after licenses to grow, process and distribute the cannabis products.
Health officials selected the five "dispensing organizations" in November, prompting another round of challenges. Hearings in the cases are slated to run from March through the end of July. Meanwhile, the dispensing organizations are in the process of beginning to cultivate the marijuana, which must be low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD.
The bill ready for approval includes provisions that would allow each of the five applicants selected by health officials in November to keep their licenses and also would allow applicants whose challenges are successful to get licenses.
The measure would allow for three new dispensing organizations, once doctors have ordered medical marijuana treatments for at least 250,000 patients. It also includes an accommodation for black farmers, who complained they were shut out from applying for the licenses because none of the state's black farmers met the criteria for the licenses.
But the changes to the measure --- which ultimately could increase the number of dispensing organizations to a dozen --- don't go far enough to fix a bad law, Sen. Jeff Clemens said.
The focus of the 2014 law "was to help people and we haven't helped anyone … because other members of this Legislature have been focused more on helping people out in the hallway more than helping people in our communities," Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, said. "It was written to undermine the free market, and it was written to pick winners and losers."
Sen. Rob Bradley, the bill's sponsor who was instrumental in passage of the low-THC law, said he filed the legislation because he was "frustrated … with people suing and worrying more about money than patients."
Bradley argued against changing the bill, saying that it was a result of a compromise with the House. And, Bradley said, a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would legalize medical marijuana for a broad range of patients will open up the market if it passes.
But Clemens and other critics of the measure filed more than 30 amendments, including proposals that would have expanded the types of patients who could qualify for the full-strength marijuana and would have allowed farmers --- and not just nurseries --- to compete for the licenses, all of which failed.
One proposal, aimed at helping veterans, would have allowed people with post-traumatic stress disorder to qualify for the medical marijuana treatment. Sen. Greg Evers, the amendment's sponsor, said it would help keep veterans, who self-medicate with illegal drugs or addictive prescription drugs, out of trouble.
"We owe it to them to have less powerful pain killers, less powerful sleep options … and not put them into veteran courts," Evers, R-Baker, said.
Saying that his two brothers served overseas, Bradley insisted that his family "loves the military."
"The Bradley family loves the military. This is not an up or down vote on how much we love our veterans," he said.
Evers' amendment died on a tie vote.