Florida: Medical Marijuana Law Misses Deadline, Nearly A Year Behind Schedule


Almost a year-and-a-half since Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers legalized a form of medical marijuana, the latest deadline for making it available to Floridians has gone up in smoke.


“I have gotten so very angry,” said Ava Pence, a Palm Beach Gardens teacher whose 9-year-old daughter, Meredith, suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe epilepsy.

“It just feels like it’s been a terrible betrayal. We once thought we were going to be taken care of,” she said. “Now, we just don’t know.”

Cancer patients, as well as those suffering seizures as Pence’s daughter does, were supposed to be able to obtain a non-euphoric marijuana oil dubbed Charlotte’s Web beginning Jan. 1, 2015. But crafting regulations for a new Florida marijuana industry has stalled the introduction.

Activists are frustrated, new legislative proposals are in play, and another effort to ask voters to approve full-blown marijuana for medical use is underway and aimed at next November’s presidential ballot in Florida.

“Every week that goes by that this substance is not in the hands of these suffering families is one week too long,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a sponsor of last year’s Charlotte’s Web bill. “I continue to be very, very frustrated.”

In a crucial step in the complicated and combative start-up process, the Florida Department of Health is finally close to selecting five nurseries to grow, process and dispense Charlotte’s Web.

The 2014 law divided the state into five regions, with one licensee in each. Officials are now sorting through thousands of pages of information submitted by 28 nurseries who have applied across Florida to become one of the five licensees with exclusive rights to sell the medical marijuana.

But an October goal for selecting the five nurseries has been dashed.

And now some advocates say it could be at least Thanksgiving before the selection hurdle is cleared — and well into 2016 before patients under a doctor’s orders could begin lining up for the product.

The oil is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — which gives marijuana its psychoactive quality — but high in cannabadiol, or CBD, which research shows eases convulsions, inflammation, anxiety and nausea.

Mara Gambineri, a Health Department spokesman, told The Palm Beach Post that officials have pledged to state lawmakers that licenses would be issued this fall.

“The department remains committed to getting this product to children with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer as safely and quickly as possible,” she said.

But even if licenses are granted, there will likely be challenges from those nurseries not chosen, said many of those involved in the regulatory battle.

Although the deadline for nurseries to apply was July 8, DOH sent letters to applicants seeking additional information to flesh out applications, which usually spanned more than 1,000 pages each.

The way those letters were issued gave some applicants an additional chance to correct any failings, and arguably extended their deadline, critics said.

In a process already plagued by lawsuits and rules challenges, some say this will only invite more.

“I think every nursery that loses in the application process will challenge. But they’re going to have to have a substantive claim,” said Louis Rotundo, lobbyist for the Florida Medical Cannabis Association and a part owner of one of the applicants in the northwest region.

The 2014 law makes eligible only Florida nurseries in business for 30 years with more than 400,000 plants on their premises.

The five nurseries seeking to land the license for the Southeast region, which includes Palm Beach County, are in Homestead and south Miami-Dade County.

Meanwhile, Ohio voters are set to vote Tuesday on a marijuana referendum similar to Florida’s law in that would give 10 facilities exclusive commercial marijuana rights in that state. But that voter initiative is very different in that it would make Ohio the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana without first having a medical marijuana law.

Laws supporting cannabis for medical treatments already exist in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

The possibility that Florida voters may take another shot at legalizing full-blown medical marijuana for much broader purposes in another referendum of its own in 2016 makes getting one of the first Florida licenses even more critical for nurseries and their investors. Nurseries producing Charlotte’s Web are likely to transition easily into growing conventional marijuana.

“I’m sure some are looking at it that way,” said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Republican fund-raiser with an ownership share and representing three nursery applicants in three different regions.

Ballard is among several Capitol lobbyists with a stake in the new venture.

Last fall, a medical marijuana campaign backed by $5 million spent by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan narrowly failed to win approval from voters. It drew 58 percent support, when 60 percent was needed for the constitutional amendment.

Morgan has tinkered with the ballot language and is gathering petition signatures to get it on next year’s ballot. A larger turnout is certain with the measure potentially sharing ballot space with the presidential contest.

Supreme Court justices are set to hear arguments in December on the language of the latest ballot proposal.

On the state’s problems launching Charlotte’s Web, Ben Pollara head of United for Care, the ballot campaign, said, “We can only hope that this has been kind of a dry run for us.”

But Holley Moseley, a Gulf Breeze woman who led a group of families with sick children, lobbying and prodding legislators to approve the Charlotte’s Web bill last year, acknowledged many feel forgotten amid the regulatory entanglement.

“Maybe I’m naïve, but I feel the support from legislators last year was very genuine,” said Moseley, whose daughter, RayAnn, 12, has cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.

“It can be discouraging. But then I think we are so close. And we have come so far,” she added.

Pence, the Palm Beach Gardens mother, said it has been a discouraging journey.

“There’s something out there that can help your child, but we’re being held back,” Pence said. “That’s very difficult.”

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Full Article: Medical Marijuana Law Misses Deadline, Nearly A Year Behind Schedule
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