TALLAHASSEE — While the Florida House of Representatives moves to decriminalize a noneuphoric strain of marijuana, the Senate advanced an alternative approach on Monday — create up to four regulated dispensaries to distribute the strain for medical purposes.
It is an approach that states that have legalized medical marijuana are increasingly turning to, after gaps in those laws led to legal confusion and needless prosecution.
Florida legislative leaders say they are not prepared to legalize marijuana for a broader range of maladies than the noneuphoric strain intended to benefit children with intractable epilepsy.
But if the Senate proposal passes, the framework could serve as the vehicle for the Legislature and regulators to control the development of the medical marijuana industry if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November.
"This isn't being approached as setting up a regulatory framework if the constitutional amendment were to pass,'' said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill. "But it would be naïve to say what we're doing does not set a precedent.''
A February poll of voters in Republican Senate districts by the Republican Party of Florida found that 78 percent favor legalizing "the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases" while only 18 percent oppose it.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 5-1 in favor of CS SB 1030, which will allow patients to use low-THC marijuana — containing no more than 0.5 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and at least 15 percent cannabidiol (CBD).
The bill would require doctors and patients to register with the state on a secure database that could be checked by police when they stop someone in possession of marijuana. And the Department of Health would have the authority to authorize four dispensaries to cultivate, process and dispense low-THC marijuana.
In recent months, Michigan and Hawaii, which have previously legalized medical marijuana, have filed legislation to set up a distribution network to make it easier for patients to obtain the drug legally. Several states already have a distribution scheme.
By contrast, the House bill, HB 843, gives patients who obtain a low-THC strain a legal defense if they are caught with the strain of medical marijuana, but it does not sanction a distribution system.
"The Senate prefers the regulatory model,'' Bradley explained. But he acknowledged that both the House and Senate proposals are likely to be revised before the session ends.
The committee rejected an emotional appeal from patients who urged them to legalize the drug for a broader range of maladies, such as cancer.
"I'm a father, a husband. I'm a taxpayer but I'm not a criminal,'' said Ryan Roman, 30, who admitted to illegally obtaining a liquid form of marijuana to fight his brain and spinal cancer, which he has had for nine years.
After being diagnosed with a resurgence of cancer last summer, Roman said he obtained a liquid form of marijuana through underground channels that he ingests twice a day in capsule form — and his tumors started shrinking.
Roman told the committee that the bill was "a good start," but because it limits the level of THC, which he believes reduces cancer cells, it is unlikely to legalize the strain that can help him.
"The tumor is getting smaller and I'm not doing any kind of radiation or chemotherapy,'' he told the committee. "This is my last option.''
"You're not a criminal,'' Bradley told Roman.
Bradley said after the meeting that he is not prepared to expand the bill to broaden it to help Roman and other patients, but he also noted that the Florida Sheriff's Association is supporting the bill.
"Any law enforcement officer who would take action against him is out of their mind,'' he said.