Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Battle for Marijuana

With important issues facing Florida, you'd think legalizing marijuana wouldn't cause much of a stir. But that's not the case. It's just as inflammatory and polarizing as it was two years ago when a constitutional amendment barely failed to get the 60% vote needed to pass.

A lot has happened since then.

The legislature passed two bills -- one legalizing non-euphoric pot, so-called Charlotte's Web, for severe forms of epilepsy, muscle spasms and cancer, and the other allowing use of full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients.

Both bills are highly restrictive, requiring all makers and users to register with the state. Both bills forbid smoking pot, which can be dispensed only in capsules, oils or vaporizing cartridges. And both allow localities to regulate dispensaries where weed is sold.

Despite these limitations, the bills caused a stampede by growers seeking approval from the state. At this writing, two of the six approved nurseries have produced and packaged pot, making Florida the 30th state to offer marijuana for at least restricted medical use. But so far only 15 doctors have signed up, and no patients are registered on a statewide database of Floridians eligible for the drug.

What's the problem? For medical purposes, it makes sense to go with a form of cannabis that doesn't give you a high. But Charlotte's Web, pot enriched in cannabidiol, the ingredient thought to treat symptoms and reduce pain, may simply not work. Tests on epileptic children in Colorado found it was beneficial in 33% of the cases, but actually worsened symptoms in 44%. Brain-wave tests showed it had little effect.

Despite that, interest remains high. Clinical tests have begun in Ohio on an ultra-pure CBD extract, and parents of epileptic children are clambering for supplies. And clinical testing of full-strength pot is underway in several states.

The FDA remains skeptical. Spokesman Michael Felberbaum said the FDA has yet to find any botanical form of marijuana to be safe or effective to treat any disease or condition. That's a powerful indictment. Two synthetic cannabinoids, Marinol and Casamet, have been approved.

But science aside, increasing numbers have come to believe in marijuana's healing powers, or at least they say they do. The proof is mostly anecdotal. ("It did wonders for my Aunt Nettie.") And with growing public support, proponents are plunging ahead.

There's certainly big money to be made. Experts say wide-open medical use would create a $3-4 billion market in Florida. And Amendment 2, which will appear on the November ballot, will provide that wide-open use.

Amendment 2 is the big kahuna. Bankrolled largely by Orlando attorney John Morgan, the amendment would steamroll the timid laws now in effect. Here are some of the provisions.

  • The amendment would allow use of all forms of weed for "debilitating medical conditions" as determined by a licensed Florida physician.
  • Those conditions include a litany of diseases plus "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class or comparable to those enumerated and for which a physician believes the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." In other words, just about anything.
  • It would exempt doctors (who act with "reasonable care"), growers, dispensers and caregivers from liability.
  • Caregivers must be at least 21 and have an ID issued by the state. That's it. No special training is needed. 
  • Unlike laws now in effect, there are no provisions for localities regulating pot shops. It would be open season. California, here we come.
To backers the amendment is, in basketball parlance, a three-point play.
(1) It will boost turnout of young voters, mostly Democrats, in November -- possibly tipping the scales in a close election.
(2) It will tee up investment for growing and packaging all forms of weed dispensed in all kinds of ways -- in food, reefers, pipes, bongs, the whole lot.
(3) It will set the stage for marijuana malpractice lawsuits (those unfortunate doctors who didn't act with "reasonable care"), a lucrative new market for tort lawyers.

Not everybody loves Amendment 2. Enforcement would be next to impossible. Illegal certifications (think Florida pill mills) are a near certainty, opening the door to street use. Law enforcement sees impaired drivers and criminal behavior. Employers see impaired workers. The health care community sees a gateway to hard drugs.

Money is pouring in to defeat the amendment: $1 million from St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, $800,000 from Publix heiress Carol Bennett. Medical groups, sheriff's associations, chambers of commerce are joining hands in opposition. Drug Free Florida is girding for battle.

But it's probably a lost cause. Passage seems all but certain. Polls show 80% favoring the amendment, with most looking for legal recreational pot within four years.

And why not? Let's all be happy. These are stressful times. In fact, I feel a debilitating medical condition coming on.

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