Medical marijuana rules start to take shape

Opponents of the constitutional amendment allowing medical use of marijuana ran some scary TV spots last year, warning that pot shops would pop up near schools, peddling pot-infused candies to kids.

Supporters of the amendment – who prevailed by a comfortable margin at the polls – patiently insisted that they wanted to let doctors prescribe cannabis under controlled circumstances to help terribly ill people for whom benefits outweigh any risks.

It’s been a long struggle. The Legislature authorized use of a “non-euphoric” form of non-smoking marijuana a couple years ago, for patients with severe seizures. More recently, it permitted full-strength cannabis for terminally ill patients, those thought to have less than a year to live.

Now, state lawmakers and local officials have the unglamorous, very important task of balancing those competing concerns of making marijuana available for medical purposes – while keeping it illegal for recreational use. Fortunately, it appears that they’re off to a good start.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is preparing a comprehensive implementation bill to provide the “compassionate care” that Amendment 2 proponents promised, without starting a business bonanza for the kind of hucksters who made a farce of medicinal marijuana in California and some other states. His bill would set population limits for retail sellers – sort of like liquor stores – with local governments still authorized to set zoning and safety rules for shops.

Some cities may forbid any retail establishments, under the Brandes bill. But there’s also a framework for delivery of medicinal marijuana to qualified patients, which would not be subject to city and county regulation. Think Amazon.

In a conversation with the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board, Brandes likened the situation to “fortresses or frontiers.” Dealers already in the business will, quite logically, want to build forts with high walls to protect their trade, the senator said, while those wanting to get started will want a wide-open frontier.

So the first folks getting rich off Amendment 2 will be lobbyists – nothing new.

The nuts and bolts of Brandes’ bill (or the seeds and stems, if you prefer) provide for doctors to certify marijuana for Florida residents with debilitating medical conditions. It adds paraplegia, quadriplegia and terminal conditions to the list specified in the constitutional amendment, along with “other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class or comparable to those enumerated.” That includes persistent pain, nausea, muscle spasms and seizures.

The Brandes bill provides for certifying patients to receive marijuana and for registering patients and caregivers with the Department of Health, which would issue identity cards they could show when picking up a prescription – or when questioned by a cop. There would be background screening of caregivers, and neither they nor their patients would be allowed to grow their own marijuana.

It would have to come from registered Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers. There would be criteria for testing, packaging and labeling of marijuana products.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health is cranking up its own rule-making process. The Legislature doesn’t convene until March 8, and implementing legislation will take a while, but DOH is required to have rules in place by July 3. Christian Bax, head of the Office of Compassionate Use, told legislators the agency will hold hearings in five regions of the state.

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, will sponsor the House version of the implementing legislation. Rep. Cary Pigman, a physician from Avon Park who heads the House Health Quality Subcommittee, said the issue for the coming legislative session is not if, but how and when, the will of 70 percent of the voters will be enacted.

Many local governments will be waiting anxiously to see what the state comes up with. The Tallahassee City Commission voted 3-2 for a 120-day moratorium on permitting any new marijuana dispensaries – long enough to get through the session, but shorter than the 180-day freeze initially proposed.

While Florida has inched forward with medicinal uses of marijuana, a growing number of states have simply legalized the weed. There’s no doubt the legalization trend will reach the Florida ballot in a few years.

But for now, it’s good to see the Legislature moving swiftly and responsibly on the medical marijuana initiative that was approved by voters last Nov. 8.

Source: Tallahassee Democrat