TALLAHASSEE — Jacalyn Vanderlip says the trips across the state to get medical cannabis for her son, George, can be horrible.
George Vanderlip, a veteran with a traumatic brain injury, is in the full-time care of his parents. He’s nonverbal, uses a wheelchair, has trouble regulating his emotions and gets carsick.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the state of Florida relieved the Vanderlips of the 280-mile round-trip journeys from their home in Deland to Apollo Beach, where the family’s preferred cannabis physician practices. Citing an emergency order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Health has allowed marijuana patients to re-up their medication with cannabis physicians via telehealth.
But DeSantis’ emergency order is set to expire June 26, apparently taking with it a doctor’s ability to continue to recommend medical cannabis to patients virtually. That’s a concern for the neediest of the state’s cannabis patients, doctors say.
“To the patients who utilize medical cannabis, many of whom who are debilitated and unable to leave their homes ... this presents a real barrier,” said Dr. Sasha Noe, Vanderlip’s physician.
The Times/Herald sent DeSantis’ office and the Department of Health three separate requests for comment on this story over three days. None were acknowledged.
DeSantis has made it clear he wants the state to return to pre-pandemic normalcy; he said May 3 that Florida is “no longer in a state of emergency.”
Doctors in Florida cannot technically prescribe cannabis because the treatment remains federally illegal. But they can certify patients as legal users of medical marijuana.
Under DeSantis’ executive order, patients still had to see a doctor in person initially in order to be certified. But patients hoping to be re-certified by physicians — as the state requires every 7 months — could see a doctor virtually.
Florida’s medical cannabis program showed explosive growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the week of March 20, 2020 — when DeSantis first signed his major emergency order — the state was home to some 327,000 cannabis patients. That figure was about 576,000 as of June 18, 2021, a 76 percent increase.
The relaxed telehealth rules were just one small factor in that expansion, cannabis doctors said. Beasley said increased anxiety and general mental health distress could have led more people to seek marijuana treatment. And Noe said the industry’s general growth in the state has led to expanded access for patients.
State records show that Florida added more than 100 dispensaries during the pandemic. One cannabis website estimated that the industry added 15,000 employees in 2020, a year in which many other sectors shrank.
Jacalyn Vanderlip said after years of trial and error, George has finally found in cannabis a treatment that helps him relax his tense muscles. His treatment relies mostly on cannabidiol, or CBD, and not as much on tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, Vanderlip said.
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Michelle Beasley, a cannabis physician who practices in the Pensacola area, said she worries the expiration of the COVID-19 order could be a safety issue. Some of her patients have compromised immune systems, she said. It’s possible that some have been unable to get one of the coronavirus vaccines.
Although the threat to society posed by the coronavirus appears to be fading, it can still be deadly to an unvaccinated individual.
“I would feel horrible if my cancer patient gets exposed in my lobby,” Beasley said.
As the marijuana industry gets more established, the state needs to change its thinking around how doctors are allowed to treat patients, Noe said.
Once the executive order expires, state rules on prescribing controlled substances will revert back to what’s written in state law. Doctors will be able to prescribe some controlled substances via telehealth in certain narrow circumstances: for psychiatric treatment, or to inpatient hospital, hospice and nursing home patients.
A pair of bills that, had they become law, would have allowed doctors to prescribe more controlled substances via telehealth gained significant headway during the 2021 legislative session. However, neither bill, Senate Bill 700 nor House Bill 247, would have allowed doctors to recommend cannabis virtually.
Ron Watson, the president of Watson Strategies, who has lobbied the Legislature on numerous medical cannabis issues, tried to convince lawmakers this past session to codify the pandemic rules around medical cannabis into law. Patients have relied on virtual medical cannabis visits for well over a year now with few problems, he argued.
Lawmakers didn’t listen. Families like the Vanderlips will likely have to wait until the 2022 legislative session if they want to avoid the cannabis doctor’s office in the future.
Jacalyn Vanderlip said she doesn’t understand why that is.
“What’s the difference?” she asked. “What makes the difference if (Dr. Noe) sees (George) on the video call or if she sees him in the office?”