TALLAHASSEE — The proponents of a proposal to decriminalize a non-euphoric strain of marijuana that helps kids with seizures are winning hearts but not the support they need from House leadership.
A key legislator, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, fears the idea will get confused by voters who think it's a sign lawmakers support a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use.
"I don't want to be the first to start down a slope of approval on the use of illicit drugs under the claim of medical protection,'' he said. "But I'm not saying I wouldn't vote for something that would help these families."
Baxley wants a stand-alone bill that is not tucked into a criminal justice package as its House sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, has done. Baxley's approach has the support of House Speaker Will Weatherford but is opposed by supporters of the bill, who say it will make it easier for naysayers to kill it.
The proposal supported by parents with children suffering seizures would allow a strain of marijuana known as Charlotte's Web to be legally developed in Florida.
"I think the supporters make a compelling case for the use of Charlotte's Web to treat children with severe seizures. There is currently no member bill filed on the matter," Weatherford said in a statement to the Times/Herald.
Meanwhile, the Florida Sheriff's Association and the Florida Medical Association, which represents doctors, say they remain vigorously opposed to legalizing marijuana for medical use. But they acknowledge the value of strains high in cannabidiol (CBD) but low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which have shown promise for stopping or slowing the seizures in children with severe epilepsy and provides other medical benefits for people with other conditions.
"The FMA is evolving its position,'' said Neal Dunn, the legislative chairman for the FMA and a urologist based in Panama City. "We think it's a mistake to conflate this innocuous substance — which seems to have significant benefit for a small group of patients that really need our help — with the larger debate on medical marijuana."
He said some doctors are working on bill language that would allow for the drug to be delivered in a pill or liquid formed "without using the term medical marijuana and maybe as an over-the-counter medicine that may not need a prescription."
Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said the Florida Sheriff's Association vigorously opposes decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes but is open to making an exception to a strain low in THC, the compound that creates a high.
"I wouldn't say we are supportive of it yet, but we're not against it yet either,'' Judd said. "When we see that testimony, and hear about children who are having 40 seizures a day, we're interested in helping in that — why wouldn't we be?" But, he emphasized, the drug should not be delivered in smoked form, the psychoactive ingredient THC must be removed, and it must be used for a "legitimate medical purpose."
Supporters of the bill say the procedural challenge is yet another signal they need to do more work.
"The bottom line is we have to pass something,'' said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation. "Leadership has to huddle with committee chairs and ensure what's the best to pay pass this with bi-partisan support."
Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee that held the workshop, is leading the effort in the House. His neighbor's child suffers from seizures and Gaetz disagrees with Baxley that the public won't be able to make a distinction between the benefits of a narrowly-tailored bill and the broader initiative to decriminalize marijuana for more general medical purposes.
"If there's anyone that doesn't understand the effect of the bill, it's certainly not the public,'' he said. "I don't think the public, or the suffering people we're trying to help, care much about the procedural machinations. They just want a result."
He said he is still trying to persuade Weatherford. "The speaker has history of not being heavy handed,'' he said. "I don't believe Speaker Weatherford is going to allow process objections to get in the way of compassionate care."
Meanwhile, the proposed constitutional amendment on medical marijuana is inching its way towards the ballot. As of Wednesday, it had 618,882 verified of the 683,149 signatures required to place it on the ballot next November.