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Nancy Smith

Power of a Few: How Florida Legislature's View of Medical Marijuana Has Turned Around

March 31, 2014 - 6:00pm

Whatever the outcome of the medical marijuana bills dominating the conversation in the Florida Legislature, one thing is certain: More lawmakers are embracing cannabis as a cure than they are as a curse.

This is new. It's downright stunning in a world dominated by conservatives.

Looking around the room at the Double Tree hotel in Tallahassee Monday, the crowd that had signed up for the Justin Sayfie "What Is the Future ofMedical Marijuana in Florida?" forum showed little sign that many dissenters attended. A few did, but they stayed silent.

A year ago it was the pro-medical-marijuana folks who were slinking into silence.

In a period of three months, a handful of legislators and victims' families have state lawmakers, law enforcers and at least some medical doctors on the same page, cheering for cures, looking at a reality that says,there is benefit in medical marijuana.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee and sponsor of the House medical marijuana bill, gives the lion's share of the credit to his co-sponsor, Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

"Rep. Edwards can be annoyingly persistent," Gaetz said, explaining why he came to sponsor the House CBD medical marijuana bill. "She pestered me with emails every day for about three months."

Edwards had a medical marijuana bill ready to go as the 2013 legislative session began, but it went nowhere -- never got a hearing. After that, she leaned into research on the Internet, looked at the studies, assessed what and where there were results. She had promised constituents with sick children answers.

Gaetz and Edwards together have given the legislative push a bipartisan flavor. And because they had a head start on the Senate, the upper chamber was primed and ready when patients told their stories of fear and the sense of futility that led many to give up on Florida, head for greener, medical marijuana-friendly pastures in Colorado.

Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, whohas filed medical marijuana bills covering 24 ailments for four years in a row, was the third forum panelist. He believes he's a winner whatever happens. "My bill won't pass," he said, "but the constitutional amendment on November's ballot definitely will." He said he's a proponent especially of the Gaetz-Edwards bill. "The House bill allows people to grow their own (marijuana). Even the constitutional amendment doesn't do that."

A year ago, who would have expected the president of the Florida Senate, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, whose constituents, some have said, lean so far right they've fallen off the grid, would be sitting in the middle of the action, nodding, even clapping on occasion, in the positive spirit of the moment.

"My own view on the medical uses of cannabis has changed over the last few years," Gaetz told me when the meeting had ended. "My involvement in hospice care caused me to take a look at pain and suffering in a new way. I'm not a clinician, but I've seen so much in terms of what treatments physicians use, what works and what doesn't."

Said President Gaetz, "Medical marijuana brings people together for different reasons. For so many of us, I think, it was the compelling stories of families who tried everything else."

Matt Gaetz said he expects the House bill to start looking like the Senate bill.Sponsored by Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, the Senate bill goes further. It allows for a medicinal marijuana dispensary system.

The audience applauded when all three legislators agreed that the medical-marijuana door had to be left open for an expansion of diseases -- that so much more research is needed on cannabis' effect not just on seizures, but on trauma, cancer, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, eye disease, Alzheimer's and others.

Not only is medical marijuana a presence in 19 states, its profile has been elevated by "trusted" personalities looking to explore its possibilities. Though it didn't come up at the forum, a month ago, for instance, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would consider allowing players to use medical marijuana if the medicine supports its potential benefits, especially as it relates to concussion treatment.

Goodell was motivated by a Harvard professor who believes that the medicine will only get to that point if appropriate studies are funded. And the Harvard professor believes the NFL should fund a study to see if medical marijuana can treat or prevent chronic traumatic encephelopathy.

Other salient points at Monday's forum:

-- The federal government has held a patent on marijuana for three decades, but "squandered the time and money they could have used on research, on addiction and substance abuse instead," said Edwards.

--The University of Floridas Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences should -- and wants to -- embark on marijuana growing, research and clinical trials. But if they do -- at least, as long as cannabis remains illegal -- they would forfeit significant federal-grant money. Said Edwards, "Why would I not want a corridor for research here like they have in North Carolina?" It would mean jobs, money and prestige for Florida, she said.

-- Said Matt Gaetz, "There's such hypocrisy in our drug policy." We live in a society, he said, where "Oxycontin has medical value but marijuana doesn't." Clemens agreed: "A lot of drugs out there kill people, but marijuana isn't one of them."

-- All three agreed that the Legislature has to work quickly as policymakers. "After the amendment passes, we'll have one shot next year to get it right," said Clemens. "We have decisions to make. For instance, are we going to tax it? We don't tax medicine in Florida. But what about this?"

-- Edwards said she wants to work next in her policymaker role. "I want to find out, are fewer people dying of cancer in California? Why do some people become addicted to prescription drugs? In Palm Beach County since the crackdown on pill mills, heroin use is up."

-- "Our House bill is going to add some training to the Senate bill for those who will write prescriptions," Matt Gaetz said. The question remains, who will write them -- just medical doctors, or chiropractors and physician's assistants as well?

Many questions remain. The impetus for Charlotte's Web or CBD marijuana is unlikely to stall now, but it might slow in the larger theater of the House and Senate. And certainly these proponentswant to be further along in providing answers. But they've come a very long way and I can't imagine what could stop the drum roll now.

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

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