Rule for medical pot put forward, but reality still far off in Florida

Published Feb. 6, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — As Holley Moseley sat through meetings this week to finalize Florida's limited medical marijuana rules, she kept getting texts from her daughter RayAnn's teacher. It was a particularly difficult day, and RayAnn had spent much of it in epileptic seizures.

"I'm feeling sick, honestly, in here," she said.

She's been fighting more than a year to get Charlotte's Web, which is low in high-inducing THC but beneficial for patients with cancer or severe epilepsy, like RayAnn.

As nursery owners, government officials, a Colorado pot grower and Moseley hammered out a proposed rule for growing the strain legalized by lawmakers last year, it's becoming clearer the best-case scenario is that Charlotte's Web will be available in Florida in December.

More likely, it'll take much longer, thanks to rulemaking and appeals processes that could push back the earliest steps of choosing nurseries by another year.

On Thursday, after months of planning and two full days of debating, the panel agreed to replace a lottery system, scrapped by a judge in November, with a scorecard to pick five nurseries to grow, process and distribute types of pot authorized by the Legislature last year.

"Once we started talking about timelines … it all kind of hit me," she said. "I'm just feeling nervous for RayAnn, who I pray can hang on that long."

The biggest hurdle ahead, now that the rule has been agreed to by the 12-member panel, is a 21-day public comment period when it can be contested, which most members said they expect.

"It's an area where people have some very strong feelings one way or the other, and people will do what they can to get the result they desire," said Patricia Nelson, director of the Office of Compassionate Use, which was created to oversee the process. "That doesn't mean that there is an absolute, 100 percent certainty that there will be a challenge."

A challenge would result in another rules hearing, and another round of rulemaking like the one this week, which was started after an administrative law judge ruled against the Department of Health's initial proposal last year.

If the plan clears those 21 days unscathed, it could take at least two months to go into effect.

And certain triggers could send this proposal right back where it started: in front of the Legislature in the final weeks of the session. If additional hearings slow the process, the plan might not make it to legislators until January, when they are scheduled to convene for 2016.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said implementing the Charlotte's Web law is a high priority for him this session.

"We need to put in place the bill we passed last year and take care of the families that are going to be dependent on it," he said. "We can talk about the future, but this is the issue now."

Arianna Cabrera is general counsel for Costa Farms, a large South Florida nursery represented on the rulemaking panel. She said that potential growers have a significant interest in getting the rule approved quickly.

The five nurseries that will be allowed to grow and distribute Charlotte's Web will be on the ground floor for selling other strains of medicinal or recreational marijuana legalized in Florida.

"From a business perspective, you always want to be the first in a market," Cabrera said. "So our interests are not in delaying this. Once you make a decision to approach something like this you want to get it to the market as quickly as possible."

If and when a rule is finally approved by all the relevant parties, the cannabis still has to be grown. That's likely a six- or seven-month process, but it's the only part Moseley is willing to wait on.

It's also the step Moseley wants to see happen fast. She doesn't know how RayAnn's epilepsy will be affecting her by the time she can buy Charlotte's Web.

"Each day," she said, "is different."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report, which includes information from the News Service of Florida. Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @michaelauslen.