TALLAHASSEE — After months of being sidelined, a bill to legalize full-strength medical marijuana for terminally ill patients resurfaced in the Florida House on Monday with a rewrite that restores the number of eligible growers to five.
The bill, HB 307, was approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee by a 9-2 vote, leaving it one more stop before getting to the full House. If approved, it will allow terminally ill Floridians with less than one year to live to have legal access to marijuana grown by the five authorized distributors.
The bill, and its companion SB 460, is an expansion of the "Right to Try" law passed last year which allows terminally ill patients to have access to experimental drugs not approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Senate version of the bill is ready for a vote in that chamber.
Under the state's Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, the Department of Health in November awarded licenses to five nurseries in business for at least 30 years and have grown a minimum of 400,000 plants. They will be allowed to grow, process and dispense marijuana low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD. Authorized patients who suffer from seizures, severe muscle spasms or cancer are eligible to receive low-THC cannabis, commonly known as Charlotte's Web.
The House bill to allow the growers to also cultivate full-strength cannabis is sponsored by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.
The measure is driven by both compassion and economics. It allows the existing five growers to expand their market — and profitability — by allowing them to sell all strains of marijuana to patients whom two doctors have determined have only a year to live. It also gives patients legal access to marijuana in all forms for palliative use.
"If you have a year left to live, you're going to try whatever you think may be helpful," said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, who supported the bill. "Frankly, you're not going to care whether it's legal or not."
The House subcommittee unanimously approved an amendment sought by Gaetz that removes a controversial provision that would have expanded the number of authorized marijuana growers from five to 20.
In November, the House Criminal Justice Committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, that would do away with the nursery restrictions and allow up to 20 licenses.
The measure was pushed by black farmers who complained that they had been shut out of the competition to grow the non-euphoric cannabis because none of them had been operating 30 years ago due to the federal government's lending practices, which they contend discriminated against them for decades.
But expanding the number of distributors to 20 also threatened to unravel the already precarious approval process that has stalled the sale of the low-THC cannabis to families of sick children since the bill was enacted in 2014. The department has already faced a series of lawsuits and has been hit with another three from a competing companies who lost the licensing bid.
Gaetz said that expanding the number of distributors would cost the state $1.3 million in regulation costs and urged the committee to remove Bracy's amendment.
Gaetz told the Times/Herald that he has "not heard a cogent argument as to why 30 years ago African-Americans couldn't have a nursery license. This was the 1980s, not the 1880s."
But several medical marijuana advocates urged the committee to expand the number of licenses to end the lawsuits and delays that have stalled access to the non-euphoric cannabis in Florida.
Cathy Jordan, 65, of Parrish in Manatee County told the committee she grows her own marijuana and smokes it to combat her amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, but others are not willing to risk breaking the law as she has.
"It's very convenient for me, but you guys have all the power and right now, they need your help," she said. "More than five dispensaries should be available because there are a lot of children that need your help."
Jody James, spokeswoman for the Florida Cannabis Action Network, also urged legislators to keep the 20 dispensaries in the bill.
"We want to see patients getting this and my biggest concern is that when you only have five dispensaries, they are going to have a market,'' she said. "They are cornering that market."
Ron Watson, lobbyist for AltMed, a Sarasota-based company that hopes to provide pharmaceutical support to the marijuana industry, also warned that not expanding the number of licenses was short-sighted.
"A regulated monopoly with vertical integration has no free market competition," he said.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.