In the weeds: Medical marijuana in Florida

By Arielle Stevenson

During commercial breaks on local radio stations across Florida, attorney John Morgan’s voice pleads, “I want to ask you to help tens of thousands of sick Floridians.” John’s namesake law firm, Morgan & Morgan, began running the ad in September as part of a statewide citizen-driven petition to legalize medical marijuana. Spearheaded by the People United for Medical Marijuana, the United for Care campaign hopes to get the amendment on the Florida ballot in 2014.

“Pill mills are prescribing dangerous narcotics like candy,” Morgan continues in the 58-second spot. “People get addicted, and many die. Medical marijuana has been proven to give our loved ones relief they need, helping with pain, appetite, seizures and spasms. Unfortunately, Tallahassee politicians refused to vote on the issue last session. They wouldn’t even hear testimony from patients and their families. Therefore, we will take this act of mercy to you, the people.”

It has all the hallmarks of the melodramatic lawyerly ads Morgan has done in the past. But his involvement in the campaign comes from seeing how marijuana helped ease his father’s suffering from terminal esophogeal cancer.

People like Jesse Whitewolf know from firsthand experience that Morgan isn’t exaggerating. She takes multiple drugs daily to ease her suffering from fibromyalgia and other ailments, but has found that the only medication that truly helps is marijuana.

“It allowed me to put the pain in the background so I didn’t feel so consumed by it.”

But state Republicans like Attorney General Pam Bondi remain unmoved. Last week in Tallahassee, she argued that the amendment language misleads voters and would make “Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states.”

Way to harsh the mellow, Pam. And the petition only has about half of the 700,000 signatures it needs by February. But if the signatures do come through, and the ballot passes in November, legalized medical marijuana could be a reality for patients in Florida by the end of 2015.

According to the 75-word ballot summary, the amendment lays groundwork for the following: “Allows the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not authorize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”

The title of the amendment takes care to emphasize “medical,” declaring that its aim is to legalize “use of medical marijuana for certain medical conditions.” Recreational use isn’t part of the discussion at all, even as Washington and Colorado move from medical into recreational models. And most medical marijuana advocates agree that’s exactly how it should be.

“We seem to have to defend the needs of patients, especially as the law is implemented in Washington [state],” said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the Oakland, Calif.-based medical marijuana advocacy initiative Americans for Safe Access. Hermes says Washington’s recreational implementation, regulated by the state’s liquor control board, could actually end up failing established medical patients.

“It’s inadequate for a patient seeking medical support to go to a liquor store to obtain medicine, which is what Washington’s market will or would look like,” he explained. And merchants selling marijuana are prohibited from talking to customers about the various products. That’s why it’s preferable for qualifying patients to get their marijuana from a medical treatment facility.

“There are a lot of people suffering that don’t even think about marijuana as a treatment because of its illegality,” says Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care.

Two of marijuana’s active chemical compounds, or cannabinoids, are credited with having therapeutic value: THC (or Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). Each has the same chemical composition, but they differ in the way their atomic cookies crumble, and cause different effects. THC causes a “euphoric” high — and, if you get a little too high, the “I’m going to die” feeling. Most medicinal marijuana patients use CBD strains, which have anti-seizure and pain management properties. Recreational growers tend to grow THC strands, but even some medicinal growers trend toward THC strains because overall, they bring in more money. In Washington, Hermes says patients are struggling to find CBD strains because it’s less fiscally fruitful for growers than THC-heavy strains.

Medical marijuana-specific regulations are important for meeting patient needs. Like the needs of Jesse Whitewolf, who’s been unable to work since 1998 due to chronic and severe pain. In Florida, a patient like Whitewolf who is diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition (defined in the amendment) would get a prescription or “physician certification” for medical marijuana from a doctor. That written certification would outline “a timeline for use,” says Pollara, similar to the dosage or refill on a prescription. That paperwork would be submitted to the Department of Health, and qualifying patients would receive official ID cards from the department, allowing them to “fill” their prescription at a state-run and regulated facility.

What such a facility would look like is still unclear.

“This is one of the pieces that, by the nature of this amendment, we will have to leave largely up to the state,” Pollara says. “This is something that by and large the state department of health and legislature will have to determine.”

With 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) having some form of legalized medical marijuana legislation in place, there are plenty of examples for Florida to consult for guidance. In Oregon, patients can have a grow house use their ID cards to grow and supply for them directly. Other states only dispense through state-run medical facilities. But that can get murky too, because after all, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Pollara says the amendment would not give patients the ability to cultivate marijuana for medical use at home, but groups like Americans for Safe Access say that’s an important thing to consider moving forward. Kris Hermes contends that every medical marijuana ballot initiative should include such language.

Patient cultivation, says Hermes, is cost-effective for those who can’t afford to purchase marijuana at dispensaries for retail prices and ensures that the prescription, so to speak, is consistent.

“Patient cultivation means having access, week after week, to the same strain,” he says.

Currently, Florida’s petition doesn’t include such language. All marijuana would be dispensed through a medical marijuana treatment center run and regulated by the state’s health department.

Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the Florida Supreme Court to give an official opinion about the constitutionality of such an amendment, writing in a letter to the court that the law “would allow marijuana in limitless situations.” And last Monday, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam criticized the proposed constitutional amendment.

“As the father of four, I can’t imagine a state that is going to spend tobacco-free money to tell kids not to dip snuff yet legalize marijuana,” Putnam said in the Tampa Tribune. Putnam argued that marijuana isn’t needed medically. “But it’s my understanding that those pharmaceuticals already exist, that have harnessed the chemical properties of marijuana for pain relief without the social issues that go with having marijuana shops next to your Tae kwon do and gymnastics studios.”

But in a state known as the OxyContin Express, perhaps the questionable “pain management” clinics next to the Tae kwon do and gymnastics studios should really be the cause for concern.

Whitewolf has taken Percocet, Hydrocodone, Prednisone, Morphine, and IV-drips of Dilaudid, none of which have helped very much. She says she’s lucky that she never got addicted to any of her medications, “unlike many people that do.”

Pollara echoes that point, noting that United for Care gets emails every day from patients battling addiction in addition to pain. One person wrote of taking 40 percocets a day, but with the addition of medical marijuana, reducing that to four.

Whitewolf sympathizes with those people. “It’s not always fair to judge people that are using substances to alleviate pain. They’re obviously not getting the relief they need. Maybe medical marijuana might be enough to stave off this addiction to life-threatening narcotics and the crime associated with that.”

She discovered medical marijuana through her best friend Margaret, who died in 1986 from lupus. “Her kidneys were failing. And it made her final days more peaceful,” she says. “She invited me to try it. I had early symptoms then but hadn’t been diagnosed. It helped me relax.”

It wasn’t until her pain level became severe that she considered making use of it for pain management.

“Medical marijuana is a safe pathway, or at least it’s something to add to the arsenal of pharmaceuticals we currently have. It does something that the rest don’t do.”

When she’s used medicinal marijuana, Whitewolf says she can focus. There are so many things she can’t do anymore because of pain, including playing her alto sax.

“I was a reasonably successful professional who has been living in poverty for the last 15 years because of this condition,” Whitewolf says. “Chronic pain is imprisoning, it robs you of your ability to be present. Medical marijuana, in my experience, has given me some comfort and piece of mind and in that respect it also acts as an antidepressant.”

Per the attorney general’s concerns, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the ballot language on Thurs., Dec. 5. Within a few weeks, United for Care should hear whether the language is constitutional.

“The reason we did this is the legislature failed,” Pollara says. “The legislature has had the opportunity to do this and they’ve chosen not to. Our feeling is, let’s take this to the people.”

If the court does rule the amendment constitutional, then it can be considered for the ballot next November — but only if United for Care gets the 683,149 certified signatures that must be submitted by the first week of January February. If voters pass the amendment, then the State Department of Health will have nine months to create and implement a state-run medical marijuana program.

Basically, if a lot of shit happens, medical marijuana might be legal in the state of Florida.

But Whitewolf says she’s waiting for the law to pass. Maybe then she’ll have access to medical marijuana. Maybe then she'll pick up her alto sax again.

“My options are becoming less and less, and my life is more restricted,” she explains. “All I want to do is decide with my doctor what the appropriate treatment is.”

http://cltampa.com/tampa/in-the-weeds-medical-marijuana-in-florida/Content?oid=4335834&showFullText=true#.UpNaL8Q_t3E

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