1. Florida Politics

Even if it delays help for their kids, these parents want medical marijuana for all

Branden Petro, 12, of Lithia was stricken with febrile infection related epilepsy, or FIRES, when he was 8. His mother, Renee, is fighting for the medical marijuana amendment in November.
Branden Petro, 12, of Lithia was stricken with febrile infection related epilepsy, or FIRES, when he was 8. His mother, Renee, is fighting for the medical marijuana amendment in November.
Published Feb. 16, 2014

In some ways, Branden Petro's life is no longer his own. Since he was 8 years old, he has been trapped inside a cycle of seizures as unforgiving as they are unrelenting. This condition impacts intellect, motor skills, memory and moods, and has the potential to be fatal.

So you ask Branden's mother what she's willing to do to save her son.

Anything, she says.

The inoperable cancer has not yet consumed Dahlia Barnhart's brain, but it has run roughshod over the rest of her life. The chemo makes the toddler vomit. The morphine leaves her dazed. And who knows if the trauma of doctors and nurses scrambling to revive her after her heart stopped beating is locked somewhere in this little girl's memory.

So you ask Dahlia's mother what she's willing to do to protect her daughter.

Everything, she says.

And now we enter the latest chapter in the saga of medical marijuana in Florida. Bills that would legalize a specific strain of cannabis have been introduced in the state House and Senate, much to the relief of certain parents whose children would potentially benefit.

Unfortunately, the legislation greatly concerns other parents, who say it does not cover the needs of their children and could slow the momentum for a much broader medical marijuana amendment on the November ballot.

Theoretically, a parent such as Lithia's Renee Petro should be focused on the more limited legislation because it's designed to control her son's seizures.

Instead, she is fighting for the full amendment.

"I couldn't live with myself if I was only worried about what this meant for my son,'' Petro said. "I want to make this clear: I'm not supporting anyone's campaign. What I'm supporting is compassion for all of these kids.''

Conversely, a parent such as Brandon's Moriah Barnhart should oppose the legislation because it may derail the amendment she believes will ease her daughter's suffering.

Instead, she will support the legislation she says does more harm than good.

"I cannot come out in opposition of any legislation that could benefit even a single parent or child,'' Barnhart said. "Every one of these children is just as important as any other, and none of them deserve to suffer the way they are.

"So I will fully support any legislation that will potentially help someone. And I just hope they extend me the same courtesy when it comes to the amendment we need.''

At issue is a strain of marijuana known as Charlotte's Web. Named for a little girl in Colorado, the plant has a high ratio of CBD — an ingredient that has had success limiting seizures — and a low level of THC, the component that produces a marijuana high.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is one of the more conservative members of the House and has never supported medical marijuana, but introduced the legislation for Charlotte's Web around the same time the amendment qualified for the November ballot.

He is aware there are parents who believe his legislation does not go far enough. And he says House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, recently suggested the legislation was merely a ploy to sabotage the November amendment.

"It's pretty cynical to suggest anybody is playing politics with the lives of children,'' Gaetz said. "Thurston questioned my motives because he said this was never a priority of mine before now. He's entitled to his opinion, but he isn't correct.

"My evolution, my change of heart, began with a CNN documentary that I saw on (Charlotte's Web) and it continued with my subsequent research.''

Momentum for Gaetz's bill seems to be growing among conservatives who like the idea of low levels of THC and the idea Charlotte's Web is distilled into an oil and not smoked.

The problem is, that particular strain of marijuana does not have the same impact for those with other ailments, including cancer sufferers. THC is often credited with alleviating nausea and restoring appetites for chemotherapy patients.

Dahlia's journey began last summer when she was just 2, and it led from her Brandon home to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and now to Colorado, where she can legally access marijuana treatment.

"We're seeing amazing benefits, but it's still a sad state of affairs,'' Barnhart said. "She's not around loved ones, she's not around friends because we can't go home to Florida. She's 3 years old, and she's home alone with me all day when she's not in the hospital. While we're trying to save her body, I worry about her emotional and mental well-being.

"We don't have medical marijuana because of this supposed fear of abuse by … criminals,'' she said. "When I've talked to (politicians) I've held up one photo of an addict and one of my daughter. I say, 'You won't ease her suffering because you're worried about him smoking pot? How does that even correlate?'

"I've got news for you: Our drug laws do not keep marijuana out of the hands of addicts and criminals. They still find it. All it does is keep it out of the hands of doctors.''

Would there be abuses of marijuana if it was legalized for medicinal purposes? Undoubtedly. Just as there have been abuses of oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl and other drugs. Just as there are abuses involving guns. And vehicles.

Somewhere along the line we eventually recognize the benefits outweigh the drawbacks on any number of topics, and we adjust as best we can.

So what should we be willing to do for children in need?

Anything. And everything.