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UPDATED New rules for limited medical marijuana in Florida met with legal challenge

@PatriciaMazzei

Rules to implement Florida's limited medical marijuana law, already mired in bureaucratic red tape, became further entangled this week by a new legal challenge.

A Jacksonville attorney representing a 4-year-old girl with an inoperable brain tumor argued in a filing with the state Division of Administrative Hearings that the proposed regulations for a cannabis strain known as Charlotte's Web are inadequate to help suffering patients. Lawmakers in 2014 authorized Charlotte's Web -- which has low amounts of THC, the chemical that induces a high -- for people with  cancer and severe epilepsy.

An administrative judge rejected the initial draft of regulations for the drug last year. And while the state defended its new proposal earlier this year, the challenge filed Monday by attorney Ian Christensen on behalf of young Dahlia Barnhart -- who would qualify for the treatment, according to the document -- criticizes the way Florida would select five companies to grow and dispense the marijuana, contending that there would be no minimum standards to ensure statewide access to the pot. 

The proposed rule is invalid, Christensen wrote, because it "fails to provide any assurances that there will be reasonable access to this medicine, leaving this critical delegated authority left up to a group of five nursery owners who have absolutely no experience growing cannabis, let alone a medicine."

The new wrinkle is a sign that approving Charlotte's Web did not do enough to address patients' needs, said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care, the group that put a constitutional amendment on medical marijuana on the 2014 ballot. It received support from nearly 58 percent of voters, just missing the 60-percent threshold required to pass.

"This recent challenge further demonstrates the need to pass meaningful and comprehensive medical marijuana legislation this session," he said. The Charlotte's Web legislation was "well intentioned," he added, "but the continuing issues with its implementation should give legislators good reason to start from scratch and pass a law that actually works and one that will help a broader group of sick and suffering Floridians."

Some legislators have said that Tallahassee should wait until Charlotte's Web is implemented before allowing for other marijuana strains to treat a broader range of medical conditions.

UPDATE: In a statement posted on its website Friday, the Florida Department of Health said the legal challenge will further delay giving patients access to Charlotte's Web. The department has been responsible for drafting the rules to use the medical marijuana strain.

"We have maintained an unprecedented, open process for developing this rule framework," Patricia Nelson, director of the department's office of compassionate use, said in the statement. "The department will take every possible action to minimize the delay this rule challenge has created in getting this product to Florida's children who need it."

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