Two years ago, voters in Florida approved use of low-potency marijuana to help people with seizures, but red tape has mostly left that legislation just sitting, with no action. (Thinkstock/Getty Images)

Florida medical marijuana still not a reality, two years later

Regulating a new industry — and 30,000 vendor applications — have slowed progress, and lawmakers are frustrated

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In the two years since the Florida legislature passed a law allowing highly restricted use of medical marijuana to help people with seizures, the measure remains in regulatory limbo, with more questions than answers.

The low-potency marijuana allowed under the Compassionate Cannabis Act of 2014 is not getting to patients, and that has key supporters in the legislature frustrated.

“We passed a law to respond to concerns from suffering families and we look up here a couple years later and we still do not have the relief promised to those families,” Sen. Rob Bradley (R) said during a recent hearing of the Regulated Industries Committee. “I find that particularly frustrating and I am sorry to those families that we are not there yet.”

The Charlotte’s Web strain that is allowed in Florida can’t be smoked. It is low in tetrhydrocannabinol (THC), which produces the euphoria-like state for users, but is high in cannabidiol (CBD) which has been effective in preventing seizures.

Getting low-THC marijuana to families covered is just one of many medical marijuana issues before the legislature in its ongoing session, which runs through March 11. There is an expansion of the Right to Try bill, which would allow patients with terminal illnesses to use high-potency strains of marijuana, and an ongoing push for a medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers expected medical marijuana to be available to families by early 2015. In hindsight, that timetable was not feasible because Florida was trying to create and set up rules to regulate a new industry. Many have lauded the Department of Health and Office of Compassionate Use for dealing with a set of difficult circumstances.

“It wasn’t made easier that the Department of Health was given a long laundry list of things to accomplish and to craft something out of nothing and no budget. It has been a tremendous challenge for a constituency and marketplace,” said Richard Blau, an attorney who leads the regulated industries division of the firm GrayRobinson. The division, which is based in Tampa, is one of many groups that have kept a close watch on the process.

Christian Bax, the director of the Office of Compassionate Use, appeared before the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee and called the process of crafting and carrying out the policies “unique.”

He said the three judges each had to wade through 30,000 pages of applications from potential marijuana vendors in order to select five and that “the cumulative work load was equivalent of reading War & Peace 21 times.”

The state ultimately granted five licenses to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana in Florida. The five regional dispensing organizations were announced Nov. 23. They must request authorization to cultivate by Feb. 7. Cultivation must begin within 210 days of receiving cultivation authorization.

The process of awarding the licenses underwent two legal challenges through the Division of Administrative Hearings. Thirteen challenges have also been issued by organizations that applied for but did not receive a license. While it may seem like another large hurdle, none of those organizations have requested an injunction to halt the entire process.

Alpha-Surterra, which is the dispensing organization for southwest Florida, requested authorization to cultivate in January. Susan Driscoll, who represented Alpha-Surterra at Wednesday’s hearing, said she is hopeful that with its timeframe the group can start supplying products to patients by late July.

Alpha-Surterra will make medical marijuana available in gel capsules, tinctures, sprays and topical creams with the possibility of adding patches later.

Bax, however, said he expects the five dispensing organizations to have products to families by September.

“This is a new industry. You look at the few states that had it before a lot of them have been medical, “wink-wink,” recreational,” Driscoll said. “This has always been focused on therapeutic. We want to make sure we do it properly and correct.”