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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Lawmakers propose expanding medical marijuana bill to include a potentially vast new market



Promising to give another option to sick patients in Florida, the authors of the state's existing medical marijuana bill filed legislation Wednesday to allow high potency strains of cannabis to be cultivated and sold for nonsmoking purposes for a potentially vast new audience — those diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Under the bill filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, two physicians would determine that a patient is at the end of life and the patient would then be eligible for marijuana with unlimited levels of THC, expanding the existing law that legalizes only noneuphoric strains of marijuana. 

"We're offering this because people who want to die without being jacked up with opiates or who are in excruciating pain are visiting their legislators, their making phone calls, their sending emails and it's working,'' Gaetz said. 

The law would expand the "Right to Try" legislation passed last year which allows terminally ill patients to access experimental and potentially life-saving treatments more easily. 

"It's appropriate to have more flexibility for those families where they can try experimental drugs they should also be able to try high potency marijuana,'' Bradley said. 

"This is a game changer,'' said Taylor Biehl, legislative director of the Capital Alliance Group, which represents a consortium of cannabis growers who have applied to cultivate and distribute medical pot in Florida. "This is a foothold for drastically increasing the patient base across the line."

State economists estimated that the current law, which limits THC levels to 0.8 percent, would have a market of only about 9,000 patients. By expanding this to thousands more people, Bradley and Gaetz not only address an audience who had been shut out of the previous legislation but offer a broader market to the cottage industry of companies hoping to cultivate and distribute medical pot in Florida. 

Gaetz, whose father, Sen. Don Gaetz, made a fortune from for-profit hospice services in Florida, said the goal was to use the existing structure. "This bill does not put a thumb on the scale with regard to the eligibility of growers. We are focused on the eligibility of patients — the vulnerable, the fragile." 

Only the growers licensed under the existing framework of the low-THC or "Charlotte's Web" law would be eligible to cultivate and sell the high potency marijuana available for terminally ill patients, Bradley said.

The Florida Department of Health received applications from 28 growers on July 8 and was required to have a three-person panel review the applications and select companies that will produce and dispense the marijuana within 90 days. The agency's general counsel Nichole Geary told lawmakers on Tuesday that it is "unable to provide a date the licenses will be available."

Bradley and Gaetz authored the legislation to legalize marijuana low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, to help patients with cancer and seizures, such as severe epilepsy. The effort was initiated after families of children with extreme forms of epilepsy pushed for the product to be grown here, even though marijuana cultivation and sale is a crime under federal law.

Lawmakers set Jan. 1, 2015, as the deadline for when doctors could start ordering the produce to qualified patients but a series of legal challenges delayed the rulemaking process and applications were not submitted until July. There are five applicants in the Southeast Florida region that includes  Miami and eight applicants in the Central Florida region that includes Tampa Bay. 

Bradley added that he does not expect his bill to draw litigation. "If someone is going to challenge, they've already done it,'' he said.

"I'm frustrated. Rep. Gaetz is frustrated. Most importantly the families have been frustrated there's been this delay,'' Bradley said. "We assumed when this law passed two years ago that right now there would be families receiving the medicine that they deserved. So it's very important when we're at the doorstep. We're almost there. We're weeks away that we not disturb that." 

Bradley did not rule out an amendment to the existing law to expand the level of THC available to patients or to increase the number of ailments for which marijuana could be used as a treatment. 

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 12:05pm]


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