Florida House makes progress on medical marijuana bill

- Floridians eligible to receive medical marijuana would have to visit a doctor only once every seven months while the number of treatment centers would more than double under a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues' bill (HB 1397) - approved 105-9 - would increase patient access to cannabis but supporters of Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana last year, say that even more needs to be done. The amendment, which was enacted on Jan. 3, must be implemented by October, with rules in place by July.

"We have a responsibility to see the amendment is implemented, but we have to do it in such a way that it complies to the guidance we've been given by the federal government," Rodrigues said.

Currently, low-THC and non-smoked cannabis can be used by patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, chronic seizures and chronic muscle spasms. The law was expanded last year to include patients with terminal conditions and allowed them to use higher strains.

Sen. Rob Bradley said that the House bill reflects what is in the Senate's version but that some differences remain. The Senate will start considering the bill on Wednesday.

"We're really close. The House has spoken but now it is time for us to weigh in and have our dialogue," Bradley said.

The House's legislation allows for patients to receive a prescription of three 70-day supplies during a doctor's visit instead of one for 90 days. Dispensaries would be allowed to expand sales to edibles and vaping products but smoking would still be banned.

It also allows patients with chronic pain to receive pot, but only if it is linked to one of the 10 conditions listed in the amendment.

"The only thing that matters is patient access. We've come a long way and it is very close to something that can be reconciled between the House and Senate," said Stephani Scruggs Bowen of Pensacola, whose husband has epilepsy.

More doctors and caregivers could be certified. Doctors would be certified after completing a two-hour course (it was previously eight) while caregivers would not have to take an exam to receive certification.

After not allowing for any new medical marijuana treatment centers until there were 150,000 patients, the House's bill now would have 17 centers by July 1, 2018 - seven current plus 10 new ones - along with four additional licenses for every 100,000 patients registered.

Taylor Patrick Biehl of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida said Rodrigues' bill has improved dramatically but hopes that it includes a diversity plan for minority and veteran participation that is in the Senate bill.

Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care, says the number of dispensaries isn't enough and that the bill puts profits over patient access.

"Prices will be high, quality will be low, and choices will be few. The Senate should make significant amendments before sending what is currently a fatally flawed bill back to the House," he said.

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Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joereedy

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