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Controversial Florida medical marijuana bill one step closer to becoming law

A Florida House committee heard dire warnings about an impending drug crisis on Tuesday. Critics say that’s nonsense.
FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2013 file photo, farmer Breezy shows off the distinctive leaves of a marijuana plant during a tour of his plantation in Jamaica's central mountain town of Nine Mile. While the island has a regulated medical marijuana industry and decriminalized small amounts of weed in 2015, it is running low on the illegal market, due to heavy heavy rains followed by extended drought, an increase in consumption and a drop in the number of traditional marijuana farmers.  (AP Photo/David McFadden, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2013 file photo, farmer Breezy shows off the distinctive leaves of a marijuana plant during a tour of his plantation in Jamaica's central mountain town of Nine Mile. While the island has a regulated medical marijuana industry and decriminalized small amounts of weed in 2015, it is running low on the illegal market, due to heavy heavy rains followed by extended drought, an increase in consumption and a drop in the number of traditional marijuana farmers. (AP Photo/David McFadden, File) [ DAVID MCFADDEN | AP ]
Published Mar. 9
Updated Mar. 9

TALLAHASSEE — If Florida doesn’t make significant reforms to its medical marijuana program, it could have another opioid crisis on its hands, a Republican lawmaker argued in a House committee Tuesday.

Rep. Spencer Roach, R-Fort Myers, made this case while advocating for a bill he’s sponsoring which would limit the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in medical marijuana products offered to Florida patients.

“We do know that people, doctors and patients, are taking advantage of our medical program to do two things: get rich, and get high,” Roach told the House Professions and Public Health Subcommittee. “We have seen this play out here before in Florida, and we know how it ends. We don’t need a sequel.”

Opioids have killed tens of thousands of Floridians. Medical marijuana has killed zero. And when asked, Roach could provide no evidence of any adverse reactions to high-THC marijuana among Florida’s more than 500,000 medical cannabis patients.

Roach’s bill cleared the committee with every Republican voting in favor of it, and every Democrat voting against it.

The measure will need the approval of at least two more committees — both of which are controlled by Republicans — before it heads to the House floor. The Senate version of Roach’s bill, SB 1958, has yet to be heard in a committee.

Proponents of the bill say even if patients aren’t overdosing on medical marijuana, high-potency versions of the drug come with consequences. They argue prolonged use of high-potency marijuana is associated with cases of psychosis. Cannabis that has high amounts of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana which primarily causes the drug’s euphoric effects — also has a negative effect on the developing brain, they argue. (The bill’s THC caps would not apply to terminal patients.)

And they say the system is currently being abused. Roach told the committee that just a few doctors were referring a disproportionate percentage of patients to dispensaries. To Roach, this constituted “echoes of the opioid crisis.”

Cannabis patients, many of their doctors and the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry are staunchly opposed to Roach’s bill. They argue the state is interfering with the doctor-patient relationship in the name of an ideologically driven hostility to cannabis.

“We’ve got some major problems here,” Rep. Carlos Smith, D-Orlando said. “Reefer madness is the ideology that is prevailing in this legislation.”

The bill’s most controversial provision would limit the amount of THC in smokable cannabis products to just ten percent of the plant by volume. Today, most smokable forms of medical cannabis contain a higher percentage of THC than that. All other forms of cannabis except edibles — concentrates and powders, for example — would be limited to 60 percent THC.

Roach’s bill would also allow the Florida Department of Health to test the marijuana grown at state cultivation facilities to ensure the plants comply with the potency limits. Industry advocates say that’s an unreasonable regulatory obstacle because it’s difficult to ensure a given harvest has less than ten percent THC.

Doctors worry that patients suffering from severe pain will inevitably turn to the illegal marijuana market if the state caps the potency of their medicine.

“Medical marijuana is already more expensive than street marijuana,” said Michelle Beasley, a physician from Pensacola who has 3,200 patients who use cannabis under the state’s program. “What do you think is going to happen?”

The state’s medical marijuana program was enacted after Floridians overwhelmingly voted in 2016 to allow medicinal use of the drug. Ever since then, the program has had opponents in the Republican-led Legislature. Former Speaker Jose Oliva, for example, was a proponent of the THC caps. A 2020 proposal which mandated a 10 percent cap for product sold to patients younger than 21 passed the House in 2020 before dying in the Senate.

But prominent Democrats have campaigned — and even won — on expanding access to cannabis. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, urged lawmakers in a tweet Tuesday to vote down Roach’s bill.

“Medical marijuana is medicine,” Fried said. “It’s improved lives, Floridians voted for it, and Americans support it.”

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