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House looks for medical marijuana change
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House looks for medical marijuana change

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TALLAHASSEE — Veterans would get free medical-marijuana identification cards, the level of THC would be capped in weed for smoking, and it would be harder for sick children to get full-strength medical pot, under a House proposal slated for its first vetting Wednesday.

The legislation, proposed by House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues, also would set limits on the potency of medical marijuana in edibles and fast-track the state health department’s medical pot rule-making process.

While the House bill would set what many consider a low cap of 10 percent on the level of THC in whole-flower products for smoking, the daily amount of THC that would be permitted in edible products — 7,000 mg for a 35-day supply, or 200 mg per day — is much higher than what most patients would consume, according to industry experts.

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Critics blasted the House proposal as an attempt to essentially gut the Legislature’s recent repeal of a ban on smokable medical marijuana. Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for the repeal, which he quickly signed into law two weeks ago.

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The House reluctantly agreed to the repeal after the new governor threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the smoking ban violated a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

Ben Pollara, the campaign manager of a political committee that led efforts to pass the 2016 constitutional amendment, called the House’s latest approach ironic.

The proposal “basically acts as a tax on patients” by causing them to spend more money to “buy more marijuana to achieve the same effect as if the caps were not in place,” Pollara said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The other irony is it would result in patients having to smoke more marijuana to achieve the desired effect,” he said. “If there’s two things the Florida House hates, it’s higher taxes and smokable marijuana, and this has the functional impact of doing both.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana that produces a euphoric effect. Levels of THC in plants grown by medical marijuana operators average about 20 percent or more, numerous growers in Florida said.

The Senate does not have a version of the House bill, but Sen. Jeff Brandes told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday he believes the proposal will be merged with a bill (SB 1618) that would increase the minimum tobacco-smoking age in Florida from 18 to 21. The legislation is a priority of Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who is a top lieutenant of President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

“You can see what’s playing out here. There are negotiations going on behind the scenes to blend all these things together. If that happens, there’s a good chance this could all come to pass. And to me, if the House really wants this to pass, we should have a conversation about licensure structure and horizontal integration,” said Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who’s pushed for more liberal medical marijuana laws for years and was referring to other hot-button issues involving marijuana- industry regulation.

In addition to the medical marijuana legislation, Rodrigues’ committee Wednesday is slated to take up a measure (PCB HHS 19-03) similar to the Senate’s proposed hike in the smoking age. The House committee released both bills simultaneously Monday evening.

Galvano, meanwhile, said he “wants to review the House bill more closely before weighing in,” adding that the Senate remains open to the THC caps.

Late last week, Rodrigues, R-Estero, told the News Service the House was exploring the THC cap for smokable medical cannabis due to concerns raised in studies that linked daily use of high-potency marijuana — 10 percent THC or more — with mental disorders, such as psychosis and schizophrenia.

“There is clear evidence that shows that THC that is less than 10 percent is medically helpful. THC that’s greater than 10 percent is not medically helpful and in fact can be harmful,” Rodrigues said Thursday.

Rodrigues also pointed to studies showing that marijuana use can have negative effects on brain development in children and adolescents.

A staff analysis of the House measure (PCB HHS 19-02) bolsters Rodrigues’ position on both points.

“The full extent of the health impact of consuming products with high concentration of THC is unknown; research indicates that use of such products significantly increases the risk of marijuana-associated psychosis,” the staff analysis said.

Studies have also suggested that “early marijuana use plays a role in initiating psychosis that is independent of actual use,” the analysis added.

Under current law, children under age 18 must get two doctors to approve cannabis as a treatment. For smokable marijuana, the second doctor must also be a board-certified pediatrician.

The House proposal, however, would require a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for all forms of ingestion, including tinctures or oils, for patients under 18.

“Youth use is something that they certainly seemed to be concerned about. It seems as though the Legislature is crafting laws in order to make cannabis available but as a treatment of last resort for minors,” Christian Bax, the former director of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, told the News Service.

The switch would make it virtually impossible for many sick children to get access to anything other than low-THC cannabis, said Moriah Barnhart of the group “CannaMoms.”

Barnhart’s 8-year-old daughter, Dahlia, was diagnosed with brain cancer as a 2-year-old, she said.

About half of the Florida families seeking cannabis treatment for their children have turned to the black market either because of costs or because of a dearth of doctors willing to order medical marijuana for kids, Barnhart said.

“So what they’re doing is they’re adding another hurdle to what’s already too difficult,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It’s making it impossible. Unless somebody is very well off financially and unless their child is physically well enough to travel, that means every parent is going to wind up on the black market.”

One group that could get help in obtaining medical marijuana, however, is veterans. Medical-marijuana patients have to obtain $75 identification cards from the Florida Department of Health that have to be renewed annually. The bill would waive the fee for veterans.

The House proposal also would give the Department of Health the authority to craft emergency rules for medical marijuana and would allow health officials to conduct random testing of all forms of marijuana, from plants to products sold at dispensaries.

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