Private entrepreneurs are moving more quickly than state government in preparing for the possibility that voters will approve the use of marijuana for limited medical purposes in November. There are legitimate questions about how medical marijuana would be regulated that are not directly addressed by the constitutional amendment. The state should be moving with the same urgency as the private sector to educate voters on how it might write rules for this new era if the amendment is approved, because Florida should not repeat mistakes made by other states with medical marijuana.
Recent polls show the medical marijuana initiative, Amendment 2, has more than the 60 percent voter approval required to be added to the state Constitution. The amendment would allow doctors to endorse medical marijuana for patients with debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Patients would be required to have a state-issued identification card and receive their marijuana from regulated dispensaries. Despite those general requirements, the amendment leaves regulatory holes that would need to be filled. The ballot language leaves the heaviest lifting to the state Department of Health, which would determine who can grow, receive and dispense the drug. With little or nothing to go on, businesses are springing up around the state with names such as Cannabis Clinic and Cannis-Rx, each hoping to capitalize on the $2.5 billion legal marijuana market.
The standards the Legislature recently established for Charlotte's Web, a noneuphoric strain of marijuana that is used to treat severe epileptic seizures, are a potential road map for broader medical marijuana regulation. The bill awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature would limit those marijuana growers to five nurseries around the state that have been in business for at least 30 continuous years. Selected growers would be required to have a medical director on staff and secure a $5 million performance bond. Lawmakers also restricted access to patients listed on a compassionate use registry and required doctors who order treatment to complete eight hours of coursework. The 30-year requirement would squeeze out too many legitimate competitors to grow marijuana, but it could be adjusted later.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana use. Opponents of medical marijuana in Florida raise several valid questions regarding product safety, doctor and patient ethics and industry oversight. Without smart answers, Florida would risk becoming the next California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Lawmakers there failed to enact statewide regulations and left the task to local governments. In the vacuum, marijuana shops proliferated and abuse abounded. Now several California municipalities have banned the sale of medical marijuana, jeopardizing access for the seriously ill who had hoped for a convenient, legal outlet for pain relief. Florida is expected to issue statewide regulations, and those rules should be balanced to provide reasonable access to medical marijuana to qualified patients without creating opportunities for shops selling the drug to virtually anyone at every intersection.
It is understandable that the private market sees medical marijuana as the next big thing. But patient health and public safety should be paramount. It would help voters make a more informed decision in November on medical marijuana if the state provided greater clarity on how it would carry out the amendment's intent to help specific patients without turning Florida into the next California.