A constitutional amendment approved by 71 percent of Florida voters allowing higher-strength marijuana to be used for a wider list of medical ailments will go into effect Tuesday. However, the true measure of what the amendment means won't be immediately seen until a new set of rules are adopted and implemented by the Florida Legislature and the Department of Health, which has confused many patients.
The measure allows the use of medical marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions as determined by a licensed physician. In 2014, the Florida Legislature approved the use of low-THC and non-smoked cannabis for patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, chronic seizures and chronic muscle spasms. It was expanded last year to include patients with terminal conditions under the Right to Try Act and allowed them to use higher strains.
Patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or other similar conditions will now be covered.
Only a few doctors are trained and allowed to recommend it, which has been a source of confusion for many like Tanya Worley. She told News4Jax Monday that her 11-year-old son suffers from seizures multiple times a day and medications just don't work.
"I’ve looked into it. I’m trying to find doctors in our area. We get conflicting reports and kind of the runaround when I’ve called a few places. Right now he goes to Nemours, the neurology department there, and (we're) waiting to get in for an appointment to try and discuss it with a doctor in person," Worley said. "A lot of the legalities are very confusing, wanting to go about it, do it the right way. I don't want to risk any kind of legal troubles for myself or anything like that. But on the other hand, I'm coming to a point where I feel like I have to do something to help him."
But Dr. Harold Laski, a Jacksonville-based doctor and president of Florida's Medical Marijuana Society, explained that the amendment may take effect now, but the law still needs to be written by the state Legislature.
"This time, they've made it a lot more specific. They talk about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease, they talk about glaucoma, which they didn't mention at all, and even with muscle spasms, Parkinson's (and) multiple sclerosis," Laski said.
It will take six months for the new law to be written, then likely another three months for it to be implemented, so it won't really be ready until possibly October. And doctors won't initially recommend it.
"Really, what they’re saying is they want this to be, let’s call it, 'the second level medication.' In other words, what they would like is the person who’s been taking other medications, which are not working, so this would be the next step up," Laski said.
Right now, Laski said, there are roughly a dozen doctors in Jacksonville who can recommend patients to a medical marijuana dispensary. But he said that is only done if other medications don't work.
What to know as Amendment 2 goes into effect Tuesday
Dr. Joseph Dorn has had a unique vantage point when it comes to the burgeoning medical marijuana industry in Florida.
Dorn was the medical director of Surterra Therapeutics, which is one of the six dispensing organizations licensed to grow and distribute medical cannabis in the state. He resigned from that position two months ago and has opened a medical marijuana treatment center as Amendment 2 takes effect on Tuesday.
"I think the expectations for most people is it is going to be a free-for-all, and all people have to do is get their cards to receive it," Dorn said. "I think there is going to be a lot of chaos initially because there is still a lot of work to be done."
The upcoming year will be important, considering the health and economic factors at play.
A study recently released by Arcview Market Research and New Frontier Data showed that Florida is on track to log more than $1 billion in medical marijuana sales by 2019 and surpass Colorado within four years.
How patients can obtain medical marijuana
Patients must be under the care of a licensed physician who has completed the required eight-hour course and examination for at least three months. Dorn, who is one of three approved physicians in Tallahassee, said he is nearly booked with appointments for the upcoming week.
According to the Department of Health, 340 physicians are registered. Christian Bax, who runs the Office of Compassionate Use, which is tasked with regulating medical marijuana, said last month he expects for there to be a significant increase in registered physicians during the first quarter of the year.
There are currently 1,495 patients in the state registry but that number will steadily increase.
Five of the seven licensed organizations have received authorization to distribute medical marijuana. CHT Medical, which was approved two weeks ago, will begin in-home delivery this month. At least one more additional license will likely be granted after a recent settlement between the Department of Health and two Southwest Florida nurseries.
Once the patient registry reaches 250,000, an additional three licenses will be made available, one of which will be designated for black farmers.
Dispensaries are open in Tallahassee, Clearwater and Tampa but according to the Florida League of Cities, 55 cities statewide have zoning moratoriums in place either banning or restricting dispensaries. Eight additional cities are considering moratoriums.
Most moratoriums are temporary as cities and counties await new regulations from Amendment 2's passage.
It's unclear at this time whether the number of dispensaries in the state and number of doctors who can recommend medical marijuana will increase when the law is ready, Laski said.
Laski said doctors don't know whether the guidelines for them will change about who can recommend it. He also said he believes more state regulated dispensaries will be needed because of the increased demand.
Five more legislative committee weeks are scheduled before the start of the Florida Legislature on March 7. The Florida Senate's Health Policy Committee held a workshop in early December to hear concerns from all parties. The House's Health Policy Committee has not met yet.
The amendment allows the Department of Health and Legislature to come up with the regulatory framework.
Those who opposed the amendment are urging lawmakers to uphold the tenants of the amendment, especially when it comes to putting laws in place to ban pot candy.
Whatever path the Legislature and Department of Health decide to go down, only one thing is certain -- the clock is ticking to get it done.