In the weeds: Medical marijuana in Florida

The petition still needs thousands of signatures to make it onto next year's ballot.

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During commercial breaks on local radio stations across Florida, attorney John Morgan’s voice pleads, “I want to ask you to help tens of thousands of sick Floridians.” John’s namesake law firm, Morgan & Morgan, began running the ad in September as part of a statewide citizen-driven petition to legalize medical marijuana. Spearheaded by the People United for Medical Marijuana, the United for Care campaign hopes to get the amendment on the Florida ballot in 2014.

“Pill mills are prescribing dangerous narcotics like candy,” Morgan continues in the 58-second spot. “People get addicted, and many die. Medical marijuana has been proven to give our loved ones relief they need, helping with pain, appetite, seizures and spasms. Unfortunately, Tallahassee politicians refused to vote on the issue last session. They wouldn’t even hear testimony from patients and their families. Therefore, we will take this act of mercy to you, the people.”

It has all the hallmarks of the melodramatic lawyerly ads Morgan has done in the past. But his involvement in the campaign comes from seeing how marijuana helped ease his father’s suffering from terminal esophogeal cancer.

People like Jesse Whitewolf know from firsthand experience that Morgan isn’t exaggerating. She takes multiple drugs daily to ease her suffering from fibromyalgia and other ailments, but has found that the only medication that truly helps is marijuana.

“It allowed me to put the pain in the background so I didn’t feel so consumed by it.”

But state Republicans like Attorney General Pam Bondi remain unmoved. Last week in Tallahassee, she argued that the amendment language misleads voters and would make “Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states.”

Way to harsh the mellow, Pam. And the petition only has about half of the 700,000 signatures it needs by February. But if the signatures do come through, and the ballot passes in November, legalized medical marijuana could be a reality for patients in Florida by the end of 2015.

According to the 75-word ballot summary, the amendment lays groundwork for the following: “Allows the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not authorize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”

The title of the amendment takes care to emphasize “medical,” declaring that its aim is to legalize “use of medical marijuana for certain medical conditions.” Recreational use isn’t part of the discussion at all, even as Washington and Colorado move from medical into recreational models. And most medical marijuana advocates agree that’s exactly how it should be.

“We seem to have to defend the needs of patients, especially as the law is implemented in Washington [state],” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the Oakland, Calif.-based medical marijuana advocacy initiative Americans for Safe Access. Hermes says Washington’s recreational implementation, regulated by the state’s liquor control board, could actually end up failing established medical patients.

“It’s inadequate for a patient seeking medical support to go to a liquor store to obtain medicine, which is what Washington’s market will or would look like,” he explained. And merchants selling marijuana are prohibited from talking to customers about the various products. That’s why it’s preferable for qualifying patients to get their marijuana from a medical treatment facility.

“There are a lot of people suffering that don’t even think about marijuana as a treatment because of its illegality,” says Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care.

Two of marijuana’s active chemical compounds, or cannabinoids, are credited with having therapeutic value: THC (or Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). Each has the same chemical composition, but they differ in the way their atomic cookies crumble, and cause different effects. THC causes a “euphoric” high — and, if you get a little too high, the “I’m going to die” feeling. Most medicinal marijuana patients use CBD strains, which have anti-seizure and pain management properties. Recreational growers tend to grow THC strands, but even some medicinal growers trend toward THC strains because overall, they bring in more money. In Washington, Hermes says patients are struggling to find CBD strains because it’s less fiscally fruitful for growers than THC-heavy strains.

Medical marijuana-specific regulations are important for meeting patient needs. Like the needs of Jesse Whitewolf, who’s been unable to work since 1998 due to chronic and severe pain. In Florida, a patient like Whitewolf who is diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition (defined in the amendment) would get a prescription or “physician certification” for medical marijuana from a doctor. That written certification would outline “a timeline for use,” says Pollara, similar to the dosage or refill on a prescription. That paperwork would be submitted to the Department of Health, and qualifying patients would receive official ID cards from the department, allowing them to “fill” their prescription at a state-run and regulated facility.

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