TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House confounded the naysayers and agreed to legalize a limited strain of marijuana for a specific list of medical purposes, bringing the last-chance remedy closer to reality for thousands of Floridians suffering with epilepsy.
As the families of children with intractable epilepsy watched from the gallery, the House voted 111-7 and sent a compromise bill to the Senate, which is expected to approve it and send it to the governor on Friday, the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Rick Scott surprised supporters and told reporters late Thursday that if they pass it, he will sign it.
The House vote came after 45 minutes of emotional debate as legislators from both sides of the aisle spoke about their initial reluctance to support the bill only to be persuaded after realizing it was narrowly drawn and had immediate potential to save lives.
"If we do not act today with the safety net and the provisions in this bill, those children will die,'' said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, a former police officer and one of 34 co-sponsors of the bill, SB 1030. "I plead with you. Reach down into your hearts. Are we really doing harm to these children? I don't think so. Do we have a great possibility of saving their lives? Absolutely."
More than 125,000 people suffer from severe epilepsy in Florida and the bill authorizes doctors to order low-THC cannabis for use by patients suffering from chronic seizures. The House bill also allows the specific strains of cannabis to cover cancer and persistent muscle spasms, including Lou Gehrig's disease and other chronic conditions.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the prime sponsor of the bill, called it a "very cautious step for those very sick children, without cracking open the door too far to inappropriate use.''
Five dispensaries throughout the state, operated by nurserymen who have been registered in Florida for at least 30 years, must be licensed to provide access to the drug. The dispensaries must show they can cultivate non-euphoric marijuana, have the appropriate financial stability and have its operators undergo a background check.
Authorized patients will be allowed access to the drug through oil or vapor form, but it may not be smoked. The House reached a compromise with the Senate to reduce the number of ailments covered by the legalized marijuana.
"While I wanted this to be on Alzheimer's, PTSD, we have compromised with the Senate and only added cancer," Gaetz said. "There are specific conditions that you must have and, if you don't, you will commit a criminally culpable act."
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, voted against the measure, but commended Gaetz for putting together a narrowly crafted bill.
"This could be the rifle shot that creates a massive avalanche,'' he said. "I pray it's not. I pray it hits the target, meets this need and shows people the right way. … I simply can't pull the trigger."
The bill also establishes a compassionate use registry to list patients and requires a doctor to verify that before a patient is authorized to use low-THC cannabis when no other treatment can be used. Patients must consent they know the risks.
The bill also authorizes the University of Florida College of Pharmacy to conduct research to determine the most effective treatment.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, tried to amend the bill to allow for a research program to develop marijuana-based drugs that would then be approved by the FDA. It was overwhelmingly rejected.
"This is essentially to make sure that we have a medical model for this,'' she said. "and we know whether these drugs are efficacious and safe."
Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who replaced her husband in the state House after he died of esophageal cancer, said her husband died after his experimental treatment ended because it had not been approved by the FDA.
"The FDA is not the answer to waiting for people who need treatment,'' she said. "If they need treatment. They need it now."
Supporting the amendment: the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Polices Chiefs Association, the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Osteopathic Association.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, who has compiled a two-inch thick document of medical research about the value of cannabis in treating chronic ailments, said she "never thought we'd get to this." With tears in her eyes, she urged her colleagues to "hit the green button,'' and vote yes. "It is the right thing to do."
Before the vote, Gaetz looked to the families in the gallery and thanked them for their commitment to their children.
"We would not be here without the love of parents,'' he said. "This is an exceptional love and it is a special kind of love that special children can instill."
The chamber then broke into applause, waived the rules and overwhelmingly sent the bill to the Senate for a final vote.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKLas