Florida medical marijuana advocates caught in Charlotte’s Web

by H.B. Koplowitz


In the political battle over medical marijuana in Florida, the Republicans have struck back. An initiative backed by Democrats to legalize medical marijuana, Proposition 2, will be on the November ballot. Now, Republican-backed bills are moving through the Legislature that would legalize a non-intoxicating strain of medical marijuana called Charlotte’s Web. Meantime, activists trying to reform the state’s pot laws are caught in the middle.

Proposition 2 would amend the state constitution to allow the medical use of marijuana for people with “debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.” The Health Department would regulate centers that produced and distributed medical marijuana, and issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. If approved, Florida would become the 21st state to decriminalize medical marijuana. Non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana would remain illegal, but opponents say the measure would result in more recreational pot use.

The Proposition 2 campaign was organized by United for Care, which is overseen by Democratic strategist Ben Pollara and largely funded by John Morgan, a prominent personal injury attorney and Democratic donor from Orlando. Morgan’s law firm happens to employ former Florida governor and current gubernatorial candidate, former Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, who has said he supports Proposition 2 as “an issue of compassion.” Incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott has opposed medical marijuana in the past (as has Crist).

In Florida, it takes a super majority of 60 percent of voters to pass a constitutional amendment, but recent polls indicate that 70 percent support medical marijuana, including nearly 90 percent of independents. Some have accused Democrats of using medical marijuana as a wedge issue to motivate more young and independent voters to go to the polls and vote for Crist. (See “Medical marijuana could be ‘game-changer’ in Florida governor’s race.”)

But Republicans also have a vehicle to show their compassion for medical marijuana patients, at least some of them. House Bill 843 and Senate Bill 1030, sponsored by Republican lawmakers, would legalize “low-THC” marijuana to be dispensed (in a non-smokable form) “to those with seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasm, if no other satisfactory alternative treatment option exists.” Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in pot plants that causes euphoria. Charlotte’s Web plants have less THC and more of another compound called cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not cause intoxication.

Charlotte’s Web is named after Charlotte Figi, who has a rare form of childhood epilepsy called Dravet’s Syndrome. In the recent CNN documentary “Weed,” Charlotte’s parents and doctors said her grand mal seizures were dramatically reduced after the 5-year-old ingested an oily extract made from low-THC, high-CBD hemp. Ironically, the low-THC strain that Charlotte was treated with was developed in Colorado by the Stanley brothers — Joel, Jesse, Jon, Jordan, Jared and Josh — who started a successful high-THC marijuana business in 2008, after that state legalized medical marijuana.

Utah and Alabama have already legalized low-THC medical marijuana, while Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina and Wisconsin, as well as Florida, are considering following suit. In an article headlined “Supposed ‘Medical Marijuana’ Measures In Alabama, Utah Are Anything But,” Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws noted that, “While the passage of these measures may pose symbolic victories for legislators, they fail to provide tangible benefits to the constituents that they are intended to serve.”

The oldest pro-pot advocacy group in Florida, the Cannabis Action Network, supported two bills sponsored by Democrats. One would create a Colorado-style system, legalizing recreational pot and levying a marijuana tax of $50 an ounce. The other bill, the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act, would set up a “regulated system for cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution” of medical marijuana, and provide a legislative framework to implement Proposition 2 if voters approve it.

In the Republican-controlled Legislature, the Democrats’ pot bills have been bottled up in committee, while the Republicans have seized the initiative with low-THC medical marijuana. On March 24, the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee voted 5-1 to approve SB 1030, four days after HB 843 was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a unanimous vote of 24-0.

CAN Executive Director Jodi James said the Florida House and Senate leadership intends to pass a cannabis-related bill this year. She said HB 843 began as a simple way to legalize hemp grown for industrial purposes, like making rope, but when lawmakers learned about the Charlotte’s Web strain, “they took off down a rabbit hole.” She said CAN is working with the bill’s sponsor to ensure it “will not adversely affect our established right to medical necessity.”

CAN was able to amend the Senate bill, changing the definition of cannabis with low THC and high CBD to “low-THC marijuana” rather than “medical-grade marijuana.” Otherwise, if voters approve Proposition 2, they might legalize non-intoxicating pot only.

Dravet’s Syndrome afflicts only 1 in 30,000 people, and evidence that it can be treated with Charlotte’s Web is mostly anecdotal (as are most other claims for medical marijuana). But by signing a Charlotte’s Web bill, Scott could show his compassion for those who might benefit from non-intoxicating cannabis. And come November, Republicans could argue there’s no need to vote for Proposition 2, or Charlie Crist, since Florida already has a medical marijuana law. Sort of.

© H.B. Koplowitz 3/27/14

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