TALLAHASSEE — 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 out 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 told the Times/Herald.
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 .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 the extract of the strain.
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.
"Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren't criminals in seeking treatment I'm entitled too,'' Hood said.
Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet's Syndrome.
"We've got a plant here on God's green earth that's got a stigma to it — but it's got a medical value,'' Eagle said. "I don't want to look into their eyes and say I'm sorry we can't help you. We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need."
The Florida Sheriff's Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was "in support."
The bipartisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth.
"We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,'' he said. "It's very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life."
The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor.
She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: "I can't imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you."
But, she said the bill had "serious problems." It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm.
"I really think we need to address this using science,'' Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. "This bill takes a step in the right direction ... but it's not quite there."
Gaetz, the committee chairman, envisions a cottage industry in Florida built on the existing network of farmers, nurseries, cultivators and agribusiness labs that currently track and measure food from farm to fork.
Since there are no known growers currently producing the plant in Florida, a market would have to be established using plants illegally obtained from other states, he said.
"We do not create in the bill a mechanism to get the stuff here,'' he said. "However that happens, it's a serious federal crime."
But, once the seeds are here — and once the growers engage in contracts with manufacturers and distributors the goal is to "get the product to the patients as soon as possible,'' he said.
If someone is caught with the plants, or a person starts farming them, the burden will be on the grower to prove the plants are low in THC, Gaetz said.
"If what we see in Colorado plays out in Florida, the patients will actually never be in possession of anything other than the goop in either coconut oil or olive oil,'' Gaetz said.
By contrast, the Senate bill requires that dispensaries be set up throughout the state to distribute the medicine. Gaetz fears there will not be enough demand to justify building the dispensaries because there are only about 125,000 Florida residents with some form of severe epilepsy who might seek the medicine.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.