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Nancy Smith

Don't Stop Now: Push Bill Through to Legalize Cannabidiol

February 2, 2014 - 6:00pm

UPDATED: It's OK not to like the constitutional amendment on medical marijuana. Lots of us don't. Never mind how the words on the ballot read, its language is fraught with unresolved issues.

But it's not OK for lawmakers to think they're off the hook, that they don't have to deal with medical marijuana this election year and can turn their backs on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of seizure-wracked Florida children when it's in their power to help relieve the suffering.

All it takes to help them is to legalize cannabidiol, or CBD. Which is exactly what Reps.Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, want to do in a bipartisan House bill.

I've written about this proposed bill before. CBD is a light strain of marijuana that produces no intoxication. All it does is calm kids who haveDravet Syndrome, give them the only chance they may ever have to lead a normal life. Dravet is a rare form of epilepsy that can cause hundreds of seizures a day.

What I haven't written is how responsibly Edwards and Gaetz are going forward on their bill. They want the intention, not just the language in the bill, to be right. They want to take advantage of the best medical practices so Florida can show the nation how illness-specific medical marijuana can be done right.

In January Gaetz, for example, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, approached the Florida Sheriffs Association for its blessing.Florida sheriffs have long opposed legalizing marijuana, noting the amount of THC in the weed, the compound that produces the "high," has rocketed from 4 percent to 18 percent in the last 30 years. But now they are praising the qualities of cannabidiol, stating in a resolution opposing general marijuana legalization that CBD "does not produce intoxication and tends to reduce the intoxicating effects of THC."

Said Gaetz, "They're open-minded about this strain ..." But so are an increasing number of conservative legislators, theFlorida Catholic Conference, Florida Baptist Convention and even the Florida Medical Association.

Erin Vansickle, spokeswoman for the FMA, issued an email stating CBD marijuana "should be subject to the same standards as other prescription medications to ensure that it is safe and effective. In order to make this determination," she said, "researchers need access so they can conduct the appropriate clinical trials."

But Vansickle also said this: "Given the promising anecdotal evidence, the FMA believes this should be done quickly so that if this form of marijuana is proven safe and effective, it can be made available to the families who need it."

Carefully but quickly. Exactly what Edwards and Gaetz want.

Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, whose husband is a medical doctor, is something of a health care specialist in legislative matters. She told Sunshine State News Sunday that while she feels for families coping with severe seizures, she doesn't think any CBD legalization bill is needed right now.

"True, I'm for limited government -- and certainly limited federal interference," she said, "But I believe we need science on our side. I want drugs that are safe, drugs where the rewards outweigh the risks. And the FDA is the legitimate source of testing our drugs and has been for 50 to 80 years.

"Right now there are three CBD drugs free of herbicides in phase 3 of clinical trials." She referred to GW Pharmaceuticals' website. "We only need to encourage one of our universities to run the clinical trials in Florida in orphan drug status, and then all these sick children can sign on and get the drug for no cost."

(UPDATE: GW does have three drugs in clinical trials, but all for cancer. According to the company's website, another drug, Epidiolex for pediatric epilepsy has been afforded orphan drug status.)

Said Edwards in response, "Gayle is a very smart woman. I'm very glad she is thinking about ways to get this to patients as quickly, safely and effectively as possible."

The Florida parents of children coping with seizures are less inclined than Harrell to give the FDA the benefit of the doubt. They report that prescribed FDA-approved drugs have caused adverse side effects like hair loss, weight loss, nausea, anxiety, even more seizures, while -- so far -- the Charlotte's Web CBD strain from Colorado their children use has zero negative side effects.

And in the end, that's what it comes down to. Not politics. Not turf. Not even whose personal philosophy is more righteous. It comes down to children with a debilitating illness that ultimately costs them their lives.

As Gaetz has said, "The reason you don't see adults with this is because generally these kids don't live to reach adulthood."

Do we really want our Florida families having to move to Colorado to live near growers so their children can get what they need? Because that's what is happening now.

Seth Hyman of Weston -- who has inspired Edwards to keep going, keep pushing -- is a dad whose 8-year-old daughter Rebecca is missing DNA, meaning she is nonverbal, can't walk and suffers from as many as 200 epileptic seizures a day. She is completely dependent on others for simple tasks like brushing her teeth or even eating cereal.

"We could wake up at any time in the middle of the night and Rebecca's there seizing," Hyman said. "She could stop breathing and her life is at risk."

I'm just hoping legislators won't abandon the good idea of this bill, that they will stick with it -- follow it through as Edwards and Gaetz cross the t's and dot the i's.

The medical marijuana ballot amendment set for November needs a 60 percent "yes" vote to make it through. Despite the early polling that calls it a winner, the election is still nine months away. Even if it passes, how soon full-effect marijuana would be available through prescription is a matter of conjecture -- but it wouldn't happen overnight.

Lawmakers can make a choice right now to be the difference in countless sick children's lives sooner rather than later.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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