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Message: House and Senate panels pass medical marijuana bills
Another in a long line of patients, caregivers and advocates had just stepped up to the podium to call for greater access to medical marijuana when a scream erupted across the room.
Six rows back, an epileptic man cried out, staring at the ceiling, hands curled into claws.
“Sergeant. Sergeant!” state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said. She chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and the nature of the interruption was hard to tell at first.
A group quickly surrounded the man.
“Is there a doctor?” Flores asked into her microphone.
One was already standing over the man.
“Does anybody have any CBD oil?” someone called out, asking for the noneuphoric marijuana that had been legalized in Florida in 2014.
Eventually, the sergeant arrived with a wheelchair, and the man was slowly pushed out of the room.
His wife stood up and said he had been here to ask for greater access to medical marijuana.
“He can’t get the only medicine that works,” she said.
Dozens of people had driven from across the state to speak at the committee hearing. Because of the medical emergency, they were unable to.
But their point had already been made.
The committee passed the bill with only one “no” vote.
“What happened today is another reminder, along with the many people that I’ve met over the last several years who are suffering from epileptic seizures and other serious conditions, that what we’re dealing with is people’s lives and we need to be compassionate.” said bill sponsor state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
The Senate bill, which now goes to a final committee hearing before heading to a floor vote, features many differences from the House bill. The House version bans smoking, vaping and edibles; the Senate bans only smoking. The House version would result in fewer licenses to grow marijuana. The Senate version would offer more licenses, but, after an amendment today, would limit the amount of retail shops a single grower can have to three.
That would mean just a couple dozen dispensaries statewide, but backers of the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana supported the change, saying it would force the state to issue more licenses and break the hold of the few growers in the state who already have licenses to grow medical marijuana.
Advocates of the constitutional amendment continue to support the more expansive Senate plan. Their mood was far different earlier in the day, when the House plan got its second committee hearing, where it passed along a party line vote with all Democrats in opposition.
Activists lined up to speak, one after the other decrying two provisions of the bill. First, they are against the ban on smoking, vaping and edibles, which left many patients and caregivers wondering how marijuana was supposed to be consumed.
State Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored the bill, said that vaping and eating marijuana were open for debate.
“If we can get proper labeling on vaping and edibles done, that is one of the subjects of our negotiation with the Senate,” he said.
Rodrigues said that reciprocity — agreements with other medical marijuana states to allow patients to get marijuana in either state — was also the subject of negotiations with the Senate but would not say what other issues were being debated.
Medical marijuana supporters are particularly concerned about the 90-day rule in the House bill.
It says patients must have a 90-day relationship with a doctor before that doctor can recommend marijuana. The rule originated with Florida’s 2014 law allowing noneuphoric strains of marijuana for epilepsy and cancer. In the wake of the pill mill crisis, it was designed to prevent doctor shopping.
But one of the sponsors of the 2014 law, state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, warned Rodrigues that keeping it was a mistake. She tearfully told her fellow committee members that her cousin’s infant son developed a rare form of cancer.
“I’m the lawmaker that has to defend the 90-day waiting period and I can’t keep apologizing for that anymore. To tell a loved one, my own cousin, and have to rationalize the irrational, we can’t do that,” she said. “Don’t make the same mistake I made on some of these issues and have to be the one to look back and tell a relative, I’m sorry.”
Parents in the audience also spoke against the waiting period.
“If someone in my son’s condition, where we didn’t know whether he was going to have to live through Sunday night, had to wait 90 days, Christ, what is wrong?” said Dennis Deckerhoff, a Tallahassee resident whose son has severe epilepsy.
The House Appropriations Committee added almost $25 million in funding to the bill. More than $9 million and 55 full-time positions would go to the state Department of Health to implement the law. Another $10 million would go to a state marijuana education and use prevention campaign. Another $5 million would go to an impaired driving awareness campaign.
The bill still has one more committee hearing in the House before going to the floor for a vote.
If both bills pass, the two chambers will have to negotiate to reach agreement on one version before passing it on to the governor to be signed.
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