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Romano: State hears heartbreaking stories on medical marijuana, but will it listen?

"People are going to die," warned licensed mental health counselor Cyndi Hamad of Seminole as she cited a Penn State study showing there's 25 percent fewer opiate-related deaths in states allowing medical marijuana while speaking before a standing room only crowd during the Tampa public hearing on medical marijuana provisions at the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Wednesday. Hamad explained later that if medical marijuana is restricted and not accessible to all those who need it, people will die needlessly because doctors will continue to prescribe highly addictive narcotics and opiates for many conditions which can be relieved by the medical marijuana.
"People are going to die," warned licensed mental health counselor Cyndi Hamad of Seminole as she cited a Penn State study showing there's 25 percent fewer opiate-related deaths in states allowing medical marijuana while speaking before a standing room only crowd during the Tampa public hearing on medical marijuana provisions at the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Wednesday. Hamad explained later that if medical marijuana is restricted and not accessible to all those who need it, people will die needlessly because doctors will continue to prescribe highly addictive narcotics and opiates for many conditions which can be relieved by the medical marijuana.
Published Feb. 9, 2017

They arrived early. They arrived prepared. Mostly, they arrived angry.

The parking lot at the Department of Health on the University of South Florida campus was so jammed with cars parked in the grass and on curbs that officials begged drivers to look for spaces a couple of blocks away.

This is the way the state's Office of Compassionate Use forum on medical marijuana began Wednesday — with hundreds of people unhappy about regulations being proposed for the rollout of Amendment 2, passed overwhelmingly by Florida voters in November.

They were angry about a proposed Senate bill that caps the number of marijuana growers and distributors, potentially limiting availability and driving up prices.

They were angry about the Department of Health's suggestion that the state's Medical Board determine eligible conditions — as opposed to individual doctors.

They were angry about the possibility a patient must wait 90 days after meeting a doctor before receiving medicine.

"We're talking about epilepsy, ALS, Parkinson's, cancer. And you want to put conditions on access? What was the point of passing Amendment 2?" said Lindsey Patton, a pharmaceutical rep whose 2-year-old daughter, Ava, died in 2015 from epilepsy-related causes. "I understand when people rip on the pharmaceutical industry, but we don't hold a candle to what's going on here. This is sinister."

Nearly 50 people took the microphone before officials had to shut down the forum, which was 15 minutes past its two-hour schedule. And just about every single speaker implored Health Department officials to go easy on restrictions and regulations.

Mothers spoke of their autistic children. A veteran spoke of PTSD. There were speakers with leukemia, Crohn's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Jessica Duncan, a Tampa Realtor, talked about the small fiber nerve damage that left her feeling suicidal until discovering cannabis oil.

"Access should be easy, it shouldn't require jumping through hoops," Duncan said. "Just listen to the stories. Kids are suffering, and they don't need to be. It just seems like it's all about money."

For the most part, state officials stayed mum. This was part of a multicity listening tour in advance of new rules.

And while it may have seemed as if health officials were on the defensive, the truth is the state still has the upper hand. It will be up to legislators to craft laws implementing Amendment 2, and there is skepticism regarding the intent of lawmakers.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has proposed a bill that would dramatically open access, but a competing bill from Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, essentially hands a very lucrative industry over to seven well-connected nurseries in the state.

Even if you ignore the economics, there is concern about the language in regulations. Doctors are supposed to have leeway to order medicine for patients with similar conditions to those listed in the amendment, but the Health Department's initial proposal would remove that ability.

"If they try to write it that way, I imagine they would have 1,000 lawsuits on the first day," said Tampa pediatrician David Berger. "If I have a patient with autism with debilitating anxiety, that is a similar condition. And it should be my decision, along with the family, as to how that child is treated."