TALLAHASSEE — Efforts to legalize a specific strain of marijuana to help children with intractable epilepsy faced a new hurdle Monday as the governor's chief medical adviser said he opposed the bill because it will allow untested drugs into the market, raising the specter that the governor may veto the bill.
"We must be wary of unintended consequences and remember that first we must do no harm," said John Armstrong, the Florida Surgeon General and head of the Florida Department of Health. He told the House Judiciary Committee that the better approach would be to allow for research and testing of the marijuana extract under the federal system.
Armstrong then abruptly left the meeting and would not say if his statement was a signal from the governor that he might veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Gov. Rick Scott has refrained from endorsing or rejecting the bill in public.
The House sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, said he was confident that he will work with Armstrong to address his concerns about quality control and predicted the bill, which the committee substantially revised on Monday, will pass.
"We intend to send to the governor a medical cannabis bill and I expect that he will support it,'' Gaetz said after the meeting.
The committee approved the bill, HB 843, on a 15-3 vote, after adopting a substantial re-write. The changes will create a distribution system for marijuana extract that, once in place, 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.
It was the last stop for the effort to legalize a non-euphoric strain of marijuana to help families with children of intractable epilepsy. There are an estimated 125,000 people in Florida suffering from the debilitating disease that becomes progressively worse as children who suffer from dozens of seizures a day, gradually suffer brain damage and physical limitations.
Families testified before the House and Senate committees that their medicine their children are forced to use has serious side effects and often doesn't work. In Colorado, which has legalized marijuana for both recreational and medical use, children who have been given the oil-based extract of the non-euphoric strains of marijuana have had their seizures reduced to a fraction of what they experienced before.
The bill creates four regionally based dispensing organizations in the state's south, northeast, northwest and central regions. Each of the dispensaries can grow and distribute the product under strict conditions. Growers must clear a level 2 background screening, show they have sufficient security in place and submit to certain financial controls.
"If there's ever a problem, we'll be able to pull up that dispending organization's license form the root and remove it all as one vertically integrated and encapsulated model,'' Gaetz said.
Under the amendment, approved by the committee also by a 15-3 vote, the state will create a "Compassionate Use Registry" that will allow only treating physicians to place the names of their patients on the list of people eligible to receive the non-euphoric cannabis for medical use.
To be eligible to put patient names on the list, doctors must attend an eight-hour certification course — managed and controlled by the Florida Medical Association —and they must have had a medical residency in Florida and certify that no alternate treatment exists for the patient.
Patients under the age of 18 must get approval from two physicians, and the registry will have to maintain a record of the treatment plan that includes dosages, amounts and frequency. The registry will be maintained by the University of Florida's College of Pharmacy and research the effectiveness and use throughout the state.
"We are in a cautious walk forward here,'' Gaetz said.
The registry will be accessible to law enforcement, who will be responsible for verifying if a patient is legitimately possessing the marijuana. The bill moves closer to a similar Senate proposal that is before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday but, unlike the Senate, the House expands the bill to cover other ailments — beyond children with epilepsy.
Among those conditions covered in the bill: Parkinson, Alzheimer's, post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer. Each of those areas will be the subject of further university-based research under the bill.
The measure also creates an Office of Compassionate Use within the Department of Health to allow Floridians to benefit from research into medical marijuana that is occurring on other states. To qualify as cannabis covered under Florida law, it must be .8 percent or less of THC, the psycho-active component in the drug, and .10 percent or more of CBD, the property that helps to reduce seizures.
The committee also adopted an amendment to make it a misdemeanor for any doctor to fraudulently prescribe marijuana extract to a patient.
After all the change, the Florida Sheriff's Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association and the FMA now support the bill, but opposition remains.
Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, an emergency room doctor, urged the committee to support the legislation, noting that most medicine is a delicate balance between prescribing a dosage that could become an overdose or benefit the patient.
"I've never taken care of a marijuana overdose in 40 years,'' he said.
He said that when children have recurring seizures, "it's like their brain is a bomb fire — each seizure consumes brain cells and with each seizure …their lives progress to becoming extinguished."
The properties of marijuana, he said, "which seem to be without risk, may put out that bonfire."
In addition to Armstrong, the Judiciary Committee chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he opposed the bill because he feared it will open the door to abuse.
"I just don't feel we're safe as a policy yet,'' he said. "It's going to cut loose something and I don't want to be the person that started it.''
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas