TALLAHASSEE — As children who suffer from intractable epilepsy watched from the gallery, the Florida Senate voted 36-3 to allow a limited strain of medical cannabis to be legalized in the state.
The chamber immediately sent the so-called "Charlotte's Web" bill to the House, where its fate remains uncertain as leaders there raise questions about whether an extract could be made safe enough to distribute.
For RayAnn Moseley, 11, and her parents, the bill, SB 1030, is her last best hope that she could get legitimate access to a marijuana extract that could potentially save her life.
RayAnn has cerebral palsy and has suffered from intractable epilepsy, a debilitating disease that has failed to respond to surgery and a host of prescription drugs. Her mother, Holley Moseley of Gulf Breeze, told a Senate committee that their next option is a surgery to disconnect the two hemispheres of her brain "or try a natural product that's working on children in Colorado, also known as Charlotte's Web.''
The Moseleys were among a handful of parents of children with debilitating epileptic seizures who waited in the public gallery watching the Senate debate.
"We're just trying to bring hope to these families,'' said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill. He admitted that he began as an opponent but changed his mind when he realized that, as a parent, he could see himself in the shoes of parents like the Moseleys.
"If it were your kid, what would you do? You'd go to the end of the world … to make sure your kid gets a chance to have a day without a seizure,'' he said.
Although the House has not committed to take up the bill, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he was confident the bill would be taken up and possibly modified and sent back to the Senate.
Gov. Rick Scott's surgeon general has spoken out in opposition to the bill while the governor has remained noncommittal.
Bean urged his colleagues to remember that the bill does not legalize "the smokable marijuana that everybody thinks is out there. This is a very low THC product that doesn't get anybody high,'' he said. "… It is delivered through an oil underneath the tongue."
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, tried and failed to persuade the Senate to give doctors who prescribe the cannabis immunity from lawsuit.
"What they're doing is taking a risk that hasn't earned the title of medicine yet,'' said Hays, a dentist. "In our desire to be compassionate, which is admirable, we need to guard against the mistakes that may come."
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said a better approach would be to allow science to test the medical benefits first and then allow it to be legalized.
"Stick to science and vote no,'' he said. He and Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, voted against the bill.
The bill legalizes only low THC cannabis, which contains no more than 0.8 percent of the psychoactive ingredient known as tetrahydrocannabinol. The special strain of cannabis may be dispensed only from a dispensing organization and prescribed by a licensed physician in Florida to a patient he lists on the state's compassionate use registry.
"We have crafted the bill as narrow as we could to help these parents and keep them from going to jail because they're doing what you would do if it were your child,'' Bean said.
The bill creates a distribution system for marijuana extract that could serve as the framework for the regulation of medical marijuana in the future. Voters will be asked in November to approve Amendment 2, the constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for debilitating medical conditions, and legislation that passes this session could limit its effect.
The House expands the bill to go beyond helping children with epilepsy to cover patients with Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's, post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer.
Bradley said the Senate is not supportive of adding the other illnesses but may have to negotiate to get a bill passed this year.
"I am fairly confident that the House will consider a bill this week and we're going to be able over in the Senate to accept it if it isn't exactly the same as ours,'' he said after the vote. In his hands, he held a picture of RayAnn's handprints that she had given to him, entitled "Ray of Hope."
He said that the bill effectively addresses the concerns of Florida's surgeon general by giving the Department of Health the ability to regulate the product "to make sure that what someone says they're giving to a child or to a Floridian is exactly ... what is advertised."
After the vote, Kim and Erick Dillard of Pensacola wheeled their son, Daniel, a 15-year-old who suffers from severe epilepsy, down the long corridor next to the Senate chambers.
"We are so relieved and happy,'' Kim Dillard said. She said Daniel suffered a "big seizure last night so it's been a long day."
But with misty eyes, she added: "We're one more step closer."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas