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  1. Hernando

Hernando schools' medical marijuana policy navigates a legal gray area. Advocates say it doesn't go far enough.

The Hernando County School Board voted earlier this month to approve policy that lets parents, but not school employees, give children their prescriptions.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Hernando County School District Office in Brooksvill
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District Office in Brooksvill
Published Feb. 19, 2019

The Hernando County School District has a medical marijuana policy on the books, after the School Board approved one this month. But as the district and others around the state adopt strict guidelines for how and where the medicine can be given to children, medical marijuana advocates worry it's not enough of a step forward.

Hernando County's policy allows parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana or low-THC cannabis at school locations designated by administrators, if a request is approved by a principal. But school employees, including nurses, can't give students the medicine. And parents have to transport it to and from the school, rather than leaving it on campus.

"It's actually a shame that cannabis medicine is being treated so differently from what other medicine a child might need in schools," said Pete Sessa, the Tampa-based co-founder of the Florida Cannabis Coalition.

The policy exists in a tricky gray area between state mandate and federal law, said Dennis Alfonso, the School Board's attorney. State law demands school districts adopt medical marijuana policies. But the drug is still illegal under federal law, so some officials worry that policies could cost districts their federal funding.

"It really is as much of a policy as you can have," Alfonso said. "The (Florida) Department of Education is saying you all have to adopt a policy ... But the Department of Education hasn't come up with a model."

Several districts have enacted medical marijuana policies. But others have opted to go without one — including the Pasco County School District, Alfonso pointed out. And Neola, an organization that advises on policy for 29 Florida school districts, including Hernando, has said it won't write policy on the matter. That leaves individual districts to determine their policies and accept liability if the federal government challenges them.

The Hernando policy is based on a Broward County Public Schools policy, and it's set to negate itself if the district is in danger of losing federal funding. But similar policies have invited trouble elsewhere. Earlier this month, a Palm Beach County couple sued the county's school district over a marijuana policy that would make them travel to their son's school three times a day to give him medical marijuana pills prescribed to treat epilepsy.

Sessa will take such a policy over no policy at all, he said, although he believes that schools are stepping between doctors and patients. Doctors typically subscribe cannabis medicine to children only in severe cases, he said. Many young patients need only one dose a day, but some prescriptions, such as inhalers used in emergencies to treat epileptic seizures, may need to be administered quickly on school grounds.

As more people learn about medical marijuana and prescriptions become more common, Sessa believes policies will change to treat the drug more like other prescription medication and to "protect the parents, protect the teachers and administrators so they don't feel ambiguous about it."

Still, he said, he worries that current policies could reinforce negative attitudes about medical marijuana.

"For now, why create a ... policy that creates a stigma around it?" he said. "There needs to be a policy for sure, but that policy should be fair."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.