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More Florida Doctors On Board With Medical Marijuana

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Marijuana laws are changing. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

A limited, low T-H-C form of medical marijuana has been available in Florida since 2014, when Gov. Rick Scott signed the Compassionate Medical Use Act, also known as Charlotte’s Web, for epileptic and terminally ill patients. But in November Florida voters passed Amendment Two, which will expand medical marijuana.

Jamie Howe has been disabled for years after complications from a gastric bypass surgery, and was diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which she said causes debilitating pain. After opiates put her in the hospital and then into rehab, she tried marijuana.

“I do get it on the black market. But it’s not something I like to do. You know, I don’t want to get busted,” Howe said. “I don’t want to go to jail especially for healing myself you know I mean this should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one.”

Now she sees Dr. Daniel Rodriguez, a family practice doctor in New Port Richey in Pasco County. But Howe is not a fan of the 90-day waiting period to get on the patient registry. Or that she had to switch doctors.

“I mean it’s ridiculous to make patients wait 90 days when I have a mountain full of records,” she said, “I haven’t just been sick overnight. I’ve been sick for years.”

Howe found Rodriguez through a document updated weekly by the Office of Compassionate Use and Florida Department of Health. He’s been on that list since Charlotte’s Webb passed in 2014. He immediately signed up for the $1,000, eight-hour course through the Florida Medical Association to get registered with the state as a prescriber to help patients like Howe.

“So once you get to know your patients for a while, you realize that there is a large population of people out there that because it is socially stigmatized to potentially use marijuana they don’t want to tell people but they do tell their doctors,” said Rodriguez.

More than 360 doctors in Florida are signed up to prescribe medical marijuana and the list grows bigger every week.

Their specialties range from oncology and neurology to psychiatry and anesthesiology, and perhaps surprisingly, the biggest category of prescribers like Rodriguez are under “Family Medicine.”

Before Amendment Two passed only Florida residents with cancer or severe seizures or muscle spasms qualified for the medication. Other people took to self-medication. But they’re not shopping for a legal high, Rodriguez says.

“In terms of people abusing the system, that has been true with multiple substances such as opiates, such as marijuana and listen, frankly, even with alcohol,” he said. “You know kids when they’re 18 they go get fake IDs to the alcohol and we don’t vilify alcohol for those people trying to seek it illegally.”

While more doctors are signing up to prescribe medical marijuana, many doctors are still careful in who they prescribe to. After all, the treatment is not FDA approved, and there are still few studies to back up the efficacy of it.

Dr. Selim Benbadis is a neurologist with the University of South Florida Health. He’s also a prescriber, but specializes in patients with epilepsy. Since the science is unclear, Benbadis said it should remain an end of line option:

“Patients on whom I will consider medical marijuana are those who have exhausted the reasonable amount of conventional treatments,” said Benbadis. “Now my going to be an extreme and say they must have tried absolutely every seizure medication? No, that’s not reasonable. But clearly it’s not first or second or third line treatment.”

At his office in New Port Richey, Dr. Daniel Rodriquez said it’s only a matter of time before most doctors will add medical marijuana to their tool belt.

“I think that people now are beginning to really realize that this is an avenue that they can seek,” said Rodriquez.

And more doctors means more patients like Jamie Howe can be evaluated for legal marijuana use.

“I hate to admit that I’m doing something illegal but at the same time people have to understand that that people like me, if I didn’t have that medicine, I would I would give up on life because somebody to be in constant, constant excruciating pain every single day,” said Howe.

For Howe it’s all she’s got right now. But the next month, she’ll be taking it legally.

WUSF is a partner with Health News Florida, a statewide collaborative reporting on health care.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by AdventHealth.

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About Catherine Welch

Catherine Welch