By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
–Patients could soon be allowed to smoke medical marijuana, but they’d have to purchase pre-rolled joints with filters, under a measure approved by a key House panel Tuesday.
Committees in the House and Senate advanced legislation to nix Florida’s ban on smoking medical marijuana, following an ultimatum issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis shortly after the Republican took office last month.
DeSantis threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the smoking ban ran afoul of a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. The governor gave lawmakers until March 15 — 10 days after the annual legislative session begins — to address the issue.
“If that (court) decision were to stand, what we would be facing essentially would be the wild, wild west when it comes to using medical marijuana. We believe there should be guardrails around that. That’s why we’ve reconvened and put this bill together moving forward,” House Health and Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues told reporters after his committee signed off on a proposal to allow patients to smoke medical marijuana.
The House plan originally would have required doctors to get the approval of a “case review panel” before being able to order smokable marijuana for patients.
But on Tuesday, Rodrigues offered an amendment that stripped the “case review” from the proposal (PCB HHS 19-01), which would still require doctors to provide documentation supporting the smokable treatment. Instead of submitting the justification to a review panel, doctors would give documentation to the state Board of Medicine or the Board of Osteopathic Medicine.
The amendment also would require pre-rolled joints with filters. That was designed to address concerns about the negative health effects of smoking.
The amendment, which also would ban smoking for patients younger than 18, was approved by a voice vote.
The panel signed off on the amended measure with a 14-2 vote, after hearing from patients and other advocates who mainly supported the revamped bill and who urged lawmakers to get rid of the smoking prohibition.
John Goodson, a veteran who said he has post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq, told the committee he no longer needed prescription medications for high blood pressure, anxiety and depression after he began using medical marijuana.
Smoking marijuana allows patients to experience the benefit of what is known as the “entourage” effect, which is created by the combination of different compounds in cannabis, Goodson and other proponents of smoking medical marijuana said.
“I am a medical cannabis patient and I am under the influence of cannabis right now,” Goodson, who lives outside Tallahassee, said.
Concentrates or oral forms of medical marijuana “are not as helpful as the smokable cannabis,” Goodson said.
“I have PTSD from Iraq. It really shook my nerves to come up here, but it’s by far the most effective drug that I’ve had,” he said.
Lisa McCorkle, 35, said she was bedridden from the effects of prescription drugs until she began smoking marijuana nearly a decade ago.
“This saved my life,” she said, admitting that she purchases whole-flower marijuana on the black market.
Whole-flower marijuana is much more affordable for patients, who can also use the buds to create their own products, McCorkle said.
“We’re allowed to use our medicine as we want at home, right?” she asked.
Rep. Cary Pigman, an emergency room doctor who serves as the House committee’s vice-chairman, hesitated before answering.
“This is not the right venue to ask questions,” the Avon Park Republican said.
But, earlier, Rodrigues said patients can do whatever they want.
“Once the patient has the medicine in their own home, the privacy of their home, they’re free to do with it what they choose,” Rodrigues, R-Estero, said.
Later Tuesday, another key panel approved a Senate measure (SB 182) stripping the smoking ban from the state law.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, had originally planned to simply eliminate the prohibition. But the Senate Health Policy Committee last week amended his bill to require a second doctor opinion before patients could receive the smokable treatment, a change Brandes opposed.
On Tuesday, however, Brandes convinced the Senate Innovation, Industry and Technology Committee to do away with the second opinion, except for children who are not terminally ill. Those children would require the approval of a pediatrician.
Under Brandes’ amendment, residents in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospice facilities would be allowed to smoke medical marijuana, if the facilities allowed it.
The Senate proposal would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell whole-flower products in any form — not just pre-rolled joints — and would permit patients to use paraphernalia purchased at other retail outlets, such as smoke shops.
The different House and Senate measures, and the changes approved by the committees Tuesday, put lawmakers in a position to pass legislation that would likely be palatable to DeSantis by his March 15 deadline.
“We’ll ultimately find a place to land this,” Brandes told The News Service of Florida after the Senate committee meeting. “I think the March 15 deadline no longer seems out of reach.”
Patients and lawmakers have complained about delays in the Department of Health’s implementation of the 2016 amendment, which has spurred legal and administrative challenges.
A number of medical marijuana-related rules floated by health officials have languished for months and DeSantis has yet to appoint a surgeon general to head the agency.
But Rodrigues indicated health officials could act quickly to make smokable cannabis available to patients.
“Given how important this is to the governor, I cannot imagine that this will be delayed significantly from the Department of Health,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.
Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican who cast one of the two “no” votes on the House proposal, said he did not want to “restrict what folks are doing in their homes.”
“At the same time, if they go out and they are having effects on other people, or driving behind the wheel, or in their neighborhoods, or at the places of employment, that is a concern,” he said.