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Politics

Medical Marijuana: Let's Go for a Better, Passable Bill

January 27, 2015 - 6:00pm

Ever since Amendment 2 on medical marijuana went down, there has been much discussion about how to proceed.

Certainly, for many of us who were opposed to putting medical marijuana into the state Constitution, the only alternative left is to put it into state statute.

The decided advantage, of course, is that if the bill were to become law, then the Legislature would be able to tweak it as necessary, as issues and problems crop up.

This is what is going to need to happen on SB 1030, the low-THC bill, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott:

Because of some ambiguity in the original legislation, issues that have appeared as a result of a recent challenge to the rule-making decisions by the Florida Department of Health, and the need for some additional flexibility, the Legislature will have to readdress this law during the upcoming session.

This is exactly why an issue like this shouldnt be in the Constitution, because that only allows you to change it every two years, versus the Legislature which can revisit it each year.

Having said all of that, getting a medical marijuana bill through the Legislature isnt necessarily going to be easy. Why?

Because there are still a couple of issues that are sticking points about medical marijuana.

The first is whether the legislation is going to allow it to be smoked.For those of us who opposed med marijuana, we also are opposed to it being smoked; however, there is the possibility that some of us will support vaping. Admittedly, I dont understand all of the dynamics of vaping, but I certainly believe that this will be superior to smoking marijuana.

Why even be in favor of vaping? Because I believe there are going to be some medical marijuana patients who are going to need the euphoric benefits in order to overcome nausea or debilitating effects for those near their end-of-life.

The second issue and one even more important is which debilitating illnesses will be covered by the legislation.

While the Amendment 2 proponents did the right thing by delineating a list of nine specific illnesses, they hurt their cause and left themselves open to arguments opposing the amendment because they had open-ended language that allowed a doctor to prescribe for other conditions. That made it about more than med marijuana, it made it clearly about legalization of marijuana.

So any bill that makes it to the governors desk, in my opinion, will need to have only the original nine illnesses. Anything more smacks of expansion of medical marijuana, regardless of the perceived help that it might bring to a patient.

But shouldnt there be opportunities for debilitating illnesses to be added subsequent to this legislation, were it to become law?

Clearly the answer is yes. And thats where the proponents have suggested some type of medical panel that would meet twice a year, as they do in some other states, and these doctors and osteopaths could then recommend that a disease be added or deleted.

This puts the onus where it should be -- in the hands of medical professionals who have the training and experience to make these kinds of decisions.

Another important issue is how do we provide future legislators with the data to help them make more informed policy decisions about medical marijuana?

The answer is that for the last 30 years or so, there has been only one federally approved pot farm in the U.S. - at the University of Mississippi. This National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) research facility has already been conducting research on medical marijuana.

Despite most, if not all, Florida universities demurring from conducting research on pot because it may challenge their other research work or because of the perceived hit on their research reputation, it is possible that a Florida university could subcontract pot research under an agreement with Ole Miss.

If the Florida Legislature were to decriminalize the research of medical marijuana and to protect the researchers from civil liabilities, then its quite possible that one or more universities would then be willing to conduct the necessary research here.

But we should encourage this research even more by authorizing research hospitals like Shands or even research institutes like Scripps, Torrey Pines or Max Planck to conduct this research as well.

The research should be scientific, in that double-blind longitudinal studies should be undertaken at several sites, perhaps as many as five or so, that would each conduct separate research, the results of which would be reported back to Ole Miss and to the medical group advising the Legislature.

Though it would take probably three to five years to get more than just preliminary data, Florida would nevertheless become the first state to finally do what should have been done a long time before - ascertain what benefits and side effects are inherent in medical marijuana.

Moreover, were going to learn over time what diseases medical marijuana is best suited for, which ones it might not work for, what the appropriate dosage is for a patient by age, sex, weight, how often it should be taken for each disease, and so forth.

All of these factors, or many of them, could be ascertained over time and this would be of tremendous importance to policymakers down the road.

In addition, because this is STEM-related subject matter, Florida could become a mecca for this research and the attendant economic development that might occur nearby. Pharmaceutical companies and others, including manufacturers, would want to be nearby as they develop related technologies like edibles, artificial medical marijuana, tinctures, oils, among many other creative ideas.

To make this happen, however, Florida will need to dedicate much more than the measly $1 million that was appropriated last year. I would think that each site should be able to apply for up to, say, $2 million annually in state funding (for a total of $10 million) that would underwrite the basic research.

Pharma companies and others would eventually provide additional funding, not unlike the research being conducted now in South Florida with Epidiolex.

I know that proponents will be tempted to go for the whole enchilada. Smoking along with an enhanced list of diseases, which will bring their supporters to the table, would be only reasonable in their mind. That would be expected.

But as we often say in the lobbying business, sometimes its better to get half a loaf rather than no loaf at all.

If all of us will agree to put something reasonable - and passable - on the table, I think the Florida Legislature could decide to provide medical marijuana to Florida patients in this session.

Instead of fighting for smoking and disease expansion, lets get a framework with a delineated list of nine specific diseases on the books, without the product being smoked, then see where the research takes us.


Barney Bishop III, has been a lobbyist since 1979. He is a familiar personality around Tallahassee. And he writes this commentary representing only himself, stating his own point of view.He can be emailed at barney@barneybishop.com.

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