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Citizen’s Big Concerns Aired At Medical Marijuana Hearings Across Florida

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SLIDESHOW: The Florida Department of Health is trying to implement Amendment 2 as soon as possible. The public hearings have been contentious, and the meeting across the state were standing room only, with crowds cheering and booing. (Abe Aboraya, WMFE)
Christian Bax, who heads the Florida Department of Health's Office of Compassionate Use, listens to the crowd at the hearing in Central Florida. (Abe Aboraya, WMFE)
Dr. Joseph Rosado told the Florida Department of Health he's had 19 patients die before they could get medical cannabis under the existing 90-day wait for full-strength medical marijuana. (Abe Aboraya, WMFE)
Ben Pollara, one of Amendment 2's architects, said his biggest issue was a proposal to allow the Florida Board of Medicine, and not a patient's doctor, to decide which additional medical conditions would be eligible for medical marijuana treatment.(Abe Aboraya, WMFE)

The Florida Department of Health is trying to implement Amendment 2 as soon as possible – and the public hearings have been contentious.

Meeting across the state were standing room only, with crowds cheering and booing. 90.7 Health Reporter Abe Aboraya was following the meetings across the state, and spoke with All Things Considered Host Crystal Chavez about the meetings.

CHAVEZ: Before we get too far into the weeds, remind us what was the state of medical marijuana before Amendment 2.

ABORAYA: So Florida passed a low-THC medical marijuana bill in 2014. This was a very limited program that tightly controls how much THC can be in the medicine and what conditions qualify. Putting that law into effect was mired with lawsuits and took years, but patients are now getting that cannabis. Last year, the legislature passed another medical marijuana law. This lets the terminally ill get full strength medical marijuana if two doctors agree the patient is terminal and they wait for 90 days.

CHAVEZ: And how is that different from what Amendment 2 does?

ABORAYA: Amendment 2 would allow doctors to recommend full-strength medical marijuana for 10 conditions like cancer, Parkinson ’s disease and epilepsy. It also allows marijuana for similar conditions.

CHAVEZ: How is the Florida Department of Health proposing to put that into effect?

ABORAYA: Well the state is basically taking all the definitions in Amendment 2 and redefining them to match the existing programs. So doctors would be able to use the current medical marijuana infrastructure for the new conditions. And they’re doing this to meet the September and October deadlines imposed by the constitutional amendment.

CHAVEZ: Meanwhile, there are two big medical marijuana bills the Florida Legislature will debate this session. What are the differences between these bills?

ABORAYA: Senator Rob Bradley’s bill would keep much of the same infrastructure in place, but would allow for 20 more growers when the state hits 500,000 patients. It also specifically allows medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. Senator Jeff Brandeis bill would completely throw out the current system, and only put caps on the number of retail outlets, not the number of marijuana growers.

CHAVEZ: So what were the biggest issues brought up in public forums across the state?

ABORAYA: I would say the biggest issue is the current cost of marijuana in Florida. Some patients are saying the price is prohibitive at $100 a gram on the high end. Here’s James Fowler, he was at the rowdy meeting in Orlando. He says the dispensaries won’t come down on the prices just because patients can’t afford it.

“So that’s gonna force us to go to illegal means and have to go to the illegal dealers you guys are trying to combat,” Fowler said. “All you’re doing, sir, is promoting the illegal activities of the black market with what you’re doing, you’re asinine rules and regulations.”

CHAVEZ: We hear the frustration about costs. What were some ideas to bring the price down?

ABORAYA: Competition is one, for sure, allowing for more growers. Right now there are about 3,000 marijuana patients and seven growers. More growers may help lower the costs. Many of those speaking want the state to allow Floridians to grow their own medical marijuana to make it cheaper. And many patients and doctors are reporting difficulties actually getting medical marijuana, that it’s on back order. Moriah Barnhart moved from Florida to Colorado in 2014 to get medical marijuana for her daughter.

She said she wants doctors, not the Florida Board of Medicine, to decide what other conditions are eligible for medical cannabis. She doesn’t like the 90-day wait before a doctor can recommend cannabis.

Barhnart asked about the legality of patients getting marijuana for Amendment 2 conditions now, before the rules were finalized.

“I’m not law enforcement, I’m not a prosecutor,” said Christain Bax , who runs the state’s department overseeing medical marijuana. “I don’t weigh into the areas of criminality. However, we do regulate physicians. If the physician believes it’s legal, and they’re following the structure of the current law, they’re not a priority.”

CHAVEZ: Interesting. And I understand at most of the meetings across the state people were upset about regulations on the doctor patient relationship?

ABORAYA: Yes, lots and lots of patients don’t like the requirement that a patient be under a doctor’s care for 90 days before they can recommend medical cannabis. Many want the doctors to be able to decide what other conditions would qualify under Amendment 2, not the state. Christopher Cano, the executive director of the Central Florida chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws, was one of many advocating for specific conditions to be eligible for marijuana at the hearing. Cano gave his father cannabis oil for severe dementia.

“He hadn’t spoken in over two years, and he began to speak with cannabis oil,” Cano said. “He passed away three weeks ago, waiting for you guys to get it together. And that was something I feared the most in 2014 when the amendment failed the first time, that he was gonna go before he had access to this.”

CHAVEZ: How are law enforcement officials reacting at these meetings?

ABORAYA: One police chief says they want tight regulations on doctors to make sure Florida doesn’t end up with a small number of doctors doing most of the recommendations. Law enforcement also wants 24-hour access to the registry of patients. That way if the police find you with marijuana at 3 in the morning, they can check to see if you’re authorized to have it. Now, I should mention that there were several who objected to that database on the grounds that it violates their health privacy.

CHAVEZ: And I understand there were some complaints about the lack of diversity in the current program?

ABORAYA: Yes, and that’s primarily because the current growers had to be an existing nursery in operation for 30 years with 400,000 plants. Some suggestions were to require the growers to have a diversity plan on file, and to even have a diversity program for future grower, specifically more African American growers.

CHAVEZ: What happens next?

ABORAYA: So now the Department of Health will go back, digest all of these comments. They will publish another proposed rule. The timeline depends on the comments, or legal challenges, they get to that rule. And remember: The Florida Legislature is likely to pass a bill to implement Amendment 2, so this whole process may start all over again in a few months.



WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by Florida Hospital.

WMFE Journalistic Ethics Code | Public Media Code of Integrity

Abe Aboraya

About Abe Aboraya

Health Reporter

Abe Aboraya started writing for newspapers in High School. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe ... Read Full Bio »