Con­fu­sion clouds med­i­cal mar­i­juana

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY MICHAEL AUSLEN Times/Herald Tal­la­has­see Bureau

Florida is now of­fi­cially a med­i­cal mar­i­juana state, but rules about who is al­lowed to use cannabis are caus­ing con­fu­sion for doc­tors and pa­tients.

A new med­i­cal mar­i­juana amend­ment is now in ef­fect, but of­fi­cials have been vague on its ac­cess.

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE — Florida is now of­fi­cially a med­i­cal mar­i­juana state af­ter a voter­ap­proved mea­sure le­gal­iz­ing the drug went into ef­fect Tues­day, but state health of­fi­cials re­main un­clear about how — or even if — pa­tients can ac­cess the drug.

Amend­ment 2, which was added to the state Con­sti­tu­tion with 71 per­cent of vot­ers’ sup­port in Novem­ber, al­lows doc­tors to rec­om­mend mar­i­juana for pa­tients with a long list of de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing can­cer, HIV/AIDS and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

The amend­ment went into ef­fect Tues­day, start­ing the clock on a six-month dead­line for the Florida Depart­ment of Health to set rules gov­ern­ing the pro­gram.

But the Health Depart­ment has been vague about who is cur-

rently al­lowed to use cannabis, caus­ing con­fu­sion for doc­tors and pa­tients.

“The Florida Depart­ment of Health, physi­cians, dis­pens­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions and pa­tients are bound by ex­ist­ing law and rule,” Health Depart­ment spokes­woman Mara Gam­bineri said in as­tate­ment­tothe Times/Herald. “It is in­cum­bent on the qual­i­fied or­der­ing physi­cian to fol­low the law when di­ag­nos­ing pa­tients and de­ter­min­ing if med­i­cal mar­i­juana is an ap­pro­pri­ate treat­ment.”

That in­cludes both Amend­ment 2 and the laws gov­ern­ing two ex­ist­ing, nar­rower med­i­cal cannabis pro­grams, she said. Those pro­grams, passed by the Leg­is­la­ture in 2014 and 2016, al­low ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients to buy full-strength mar­i­juana and cer­tain other pa­tients, such as chil­dren with se­vere epilepsy, to have strains of cannabis low in the chem­i­cal THC, which causes the sen­sa­tion of be­ing high.

Yet­the­ex­ist­inglaws­donot­set out any re­quire­ments or op­tions for the tens of thou­sands of pa­tients who could be­come el­i­gi­ble un­der the ex­panded list of con­di­tions vot­ers ap­proved in Amend­ment2.

Gam­bineri did not pro­vide clar­ity when asked if doc­tors could rec­om­mend cannabis for the ad­di­tional pa­tients and did not say what rules they should use to do so.

“Doc­tors should prob­a­bly con­sult their le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion to ask that ques­tion,” she said in a tele­phone in­ter­view with the News Ser­vice of Florida.

The Depart­ment of Health has started writ­ing rules for a broader med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram, Gam­bineri said, though it has not yet for­mally pro­posed them and did not put into place an emergency rule to give new pa­tients ac­cess un­der the old sys­tem in the mean­time.

State law­mak­ers made no move stop ass a law im­ple­ment­ing the amend­ment when they came to Tal­la­has­see for an or­ga­ni­za­tional ses­sion. Both House Speaker Richard Cor­co­ran, RLand O’Lakes, and Senate Pres­i­dent Joe Ne­gron, R-Stu­art, said they plan to ad­dress the is­sue dur­ing the reg­u­lar leg­isla­tive ses­sion that be­gins March 7.

Al­ready, pa­tients are go­ing to doc­tors to seek cannabis. Sil­via Ben­tan­cor, an in­ternist who prac­tices at CBD Clinic, which spe­cial­izes in can­nibis-based treat­ment in south­west Mi­amiDade County, said she has had sev­eral pa­tients come to her clinic to start build­ing a re­la­tion­ship in hopes of be­ing able to use mar­i­juana later this year.

“There are many pa­tients with can­cer, neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders or se­ri­ous di­ges­tive prob­lems that are wait­ing with hope of us­ing a nat­u­ral prod­uct,” she said.

Tampa-based cannabis grower and dis­pen­sary Surterra, one of seven cur­rently li­censed in the state, re­ported no prob­lems the first day of Amend­ment 2 go­ing into ef­fect. But dis­pen­saries are not tasked with de­ter­min­ing who can use the drug. That is left up to doc­tors, who en­ter pa­tients into a statewide data­base main­tained by the Depart­ment of Health.

“If you are in the sys­tem and we are able to ver­ify you are who you say you are, we’ll give you what­ever it says you’re el­i­gi­ble for,” said Mon­ica Russell, spokes­woman for Surterra. “We are ready to serve any pa­tient that a doc­tor qual­i­fies at this point.”

Even­tu­ally, the Leg­is­la­ture and Health Depart­ment will have to act. But in the mean­time, doc­tors, dis­pen­saries and pa­tients have been left con­fused.

“There’s still a lot to do with im­ple­men­ta­tion and what that means,” Russell said. “I think we’re all just sort of anx­iously await­ing the ‘What now?’ ” Miami Herald staff writ­ers Alex Har­ris and Joey Flechas con­trib­uted to this re­port, which also used in­for­ma­tion from the News Ser­vice of Florida. Con­tact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tam­pabay.com.

Fol­low @michae­lauslen.

Associated Press

The state Depart­ment of Health has six months to set rules gov­ern­ing the pro­gram. The amend­ment lets doc­tors rec­om­mend mar­i­juana for a long list of con­di­tions.

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