TALLAHASSEE — Three-year-old Dinah is the latest face joining the entourage pushing for medical marijuana in Florida, arriving on the scene just as the Senate is poised to broaden the state's non-euphoric cannabis law approved last year.
Like others whose loved ones pleaded for the law, Dinah suffers from frequent seizures caused by severe epilepsy. The biggest difference is that Dinah's a dog.
The bulldog-labrador mix's owner, Lisa Miller, has spent nearly three decades walking the halls of the Capitol as a lobbyist and regulator pitching lawmakers on insurance issues.
Miller is now putting her lobbying expertise to work for a more personal cause. She's hustling to get the Legislature to add animals to a research component included in the Senate medical-marijuana proposal (SB 7066).
"Throw Dinah the bone," reads a flyer Miller is now distributing to lawmakers. "Please put your paw on the green button."
Miller wants lawmakers to sign off on a one-sentence amendment that would order the Department of Health to contract with a veterinary research organization to conduct research "to determine the benefits and contradictions of the use of medical-grade marijuana for treating animals with seizure disorders or other life-limiting illnesses."
To sweeten her plan, Miller isn't asking the Legislature for any money. She's hoping to convince vet schools and others to sponsor the animal studies.
One of three rescue dogs that Miller says are her "passion in life," Dinah had her first seizure during the Florida State University championship football game last year.
"It was the scariest thing to see her laying on the living room floor in front of the TV having a grand mal seizure," Miller said.
Dinah, diagnosed with severe epilepsy, now takes Phenobarbital twice a day to treat her seizures. But the drug isn't working, and its side effects can be very serious, Miller said.
"The initial research has very positive indications that medical marijuana would do the trick without the side effects," she said.
Florida became the first state in the nation last year to legalize cannabis that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. CBD is the compound in pot that doesn't make users feel "high" but is believed to alleviate symptoms, including spasms, for a wide range of conditions.
Although more than two dozen states have legalized medical marijuana, none have allowed its use for animals.
At least one study found that CBD reduced seizures in lab rats, but veterinarians have been slow to jump on the medical-marijuana bandwagon.
That's in part because vets have so many experiences treating hounds that ended up severely ill after scarfing their owners' stashes, according to Dinah's doctor, Tallahassee veterinarian Lucas Bevis.
"The big dark cloud is that for the longest time all we've known about marijuana in animals is that it can be toxic to them. A lot of people have been blinded by that fact. It really makes a lot of clinicians just write off the fact that there may be therapeutic properties to this plant," Bevis said.
Pot remains illegal under federal law although U.S. officials have relaxed their opposition to medical marijuana. And it's lumped together under state and federal laws with other drugs considered the most dangerous, such as heroin and LSD, possibly contributing to veterinarians' skepticism about its medicinal value.
But Bevis supports Miller's attempt to gather more data on the drug's efficacy in treating pets like Dinah.
"There's a potential for something that could be very beneficial in this world of medicine," Bevis said. "The number one concern is just getting the ability to research it. I do think that there is definitely a place for it if the research shows that there's a positive response with minimal side-effects."
Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who shepherded the low-THC legislation into law last year, is sponsoring a bill that would set up a regulatory framework for the medical marijuana industry and would broaden the types of patients eligible for the treatment.
Bradley indicated Miller's attempt to get animals included in the research isn't likely to make it into this year's proposal, aimed at putting an end to legal challenges that have kept sick patients from getting the low-THC substances that were supposed to have been in production by now.
"My wife Jennifer, my kids and I are the biggest animal lovers in the world," Bradley said. "There may be a time to deal with that issue down the road, but this year we're going to focus on cannabis treatments for humans."
But the tenacious Miller isn't giving up. She's recruited a team of animal lovers to pass out her flyers and help her persuade lawmakers to agree to her proposal.
"This amendment is not just about Dinah. It's about this common-sense research that should not be overlooked because it could bring relief to thousands of animals who suffer from uncontrollable epileptic seizures. Our best friends deserve the best treatment," Miller said.