Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An early nod for medical pot

One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.

Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues on Wednesday to pass the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.

The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product.

"That's because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can't just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you're either for it or against it,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill. "Not all marijuana is created equally."

The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy.

A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt's father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step.

"Here I am, a conservative Republican, but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,'' Gaetz said.

The families told the House committee that the discovery in Colorado of a marijuana strain, low in the euphoric properties known as THC and high in the antiseizure properties of CBD, is their last best hope.

They spoke of how they are considering moving to Colorado to get the relief needed for their kids, and they pleaded with the committee to move quickly.

"Daniel has over 300 seizures a year — that's on the low side,'' said Kim Dillard of Pensacola, pointing to her 15-year-old son who suffers from Dravet's syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy.

"We figure after 15 years, the odds of a big one are kind of against us,'' she said. "We just want the chance to try it."

The bill gives anyone found in possession of this kind of marijuana the right to defend themselves against prosecution. It also steers $1 million to state universities to research, develop and come up with a distribution plan for the specialty drug in Florida.

Under Van Zant's amendment, marijuana would be considered legal if it contains 0.8 percent or less of tetrhydrocannabinol (THC) and more than 10 percent of cannabidiol (CBD) — or a ratio of 1 to 12. He said that level should be easily obtained by researchers and growers but still be "far from having any street value."

The low THC strain has been cultivated in others states and named "Charlotte's Web,'' in honor of a Colorado girl whose seizures were reduced dramatically after her parents gave her an oil made from its extract.

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable.

Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of "brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig's disease" but continued to ban the substance.

The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association, who said the bill had "serious problems." Her husband is a doctor.

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