Do Floridians With Debilitating Illnesses Have Access to Medical Marijuana if a Doctor Recommends It?

Several news releases around the state this week have reported the Department of Health has given permission for Truelieve, a grower and dispensary based in Tallahassee, to start selling a strain of the medical marijuana drug low in THC. For Florida, this is the first dispensing license for medical marijuana since the 2014 law legalized this variety of cannabis for patients with severe intractable epilepsy, cancer, and the terminally ill. For more information about this announcement visit http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/the-buzz-florida-politics/first-medical-marijuana-available-next-week-in-florida/2286130

You may recall from the 2014 ballot there was a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. In that election, the proposal required a 60% supermajority of those voting on the issue to pass. The proposal received 57.62% of the vote in favor causing it to fail to pass by only 2.38%. Following the election, the Florida’s governor signed into law the “Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014” allowing physicians to prescribe certain low THC cannabis based drugs for select specified patients. It is this law that is finally allowing the Trulieve to start dispensing the drug next week.

Floridians will find another medical marijuana amendment proposal on the ballot this November. The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, Amendment 2 (2016) is summarized for voters as follows:

“Allows medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating medical conditions as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not immunize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”

Although intended to accomplish the same objective as the 2014 proposal, there are few differences between the wording of the 2014 proposal and that which voters will vote on in 2016. The newer version clarifies certain concerns of opponents regarding such matters as parental consent and caregiver liability. Parental consent is clearly required and doctors will be limited in the number of patients they can prescribe the drug to and will not be immune from negligent prescribing. Will these changes alleviate enough of the prior concerns for this amendment to pass? We shall know in a few months.

The legalization of medical marijuana has the potential for making drastic changes for those with certain disabling conditions. Conditions involving severe chronic pain and/or nausea, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, severe disabling anxiety and others currently require prescription drugs that often come with far more serious side effects than marijuana which has no recorded incidence of deadly overdose. (The CDC reports prescription drug deaths have quadrupled from 1999 to 2014.). Also, many patients who find relief from marijuana simply do not respond to prescription medications. Studies are showing that smoking or vaporizing marijuana are much more effective delivery methods than pills for many patients in that the drug works instantly, the dosage may be controlled by the patient, and there is no problem ‘keeping it down’ since it cannot be vomited back up. Regulations currently allow for such drugs as cocaine, morphine, and methamphetamine to be legally administered to patients under a doctor’s care. Can marijuana be added to this list to help those with debilitating illnesses?

Opponents of legalization legitimately point out the FDA still has marijuana categorized as a Schedule 1 drug along with such other drugs as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. This means marijuana is currently classified as one of most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence. Additionally, it is argued there is sufficient scientific evidence of serious harmful effects of marijuana such as cognitive difficulties, increased anxiety and depression from some, and addiction issues. Legalization can also cause people, especially children to believe marijuana is safe for recreational use. Some, but not all of these arguments fall away when the legalization issue is limited to medical marijuana in controlled settings.

While perhaps not the most polarizing of issue of our time, the proposal to legalize marijuana can bring out definite strong opinions both for and against. Regardless of the outcome, the treatment options available for those with debilitating and disabling conditions will be impacted. Currently, only certain very narrowly defined patients have access to medical marijuana through the 2014 law. Others may, or may not, have to wait.

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