State health officials have started the process that will ultimately allow Floridians with debilitating conditions to buy and use medical marijuana.
Tuesday morning, the Florida Department of Health published its initial proposed rules for a statewide medical marijuana program and announced public hearings. But the rules essentially merge new patients into an existing, small medical cannabis program already functioning in the state, diverging from some of the key ideas pushed during the November election by backers of Amendment 2, the constitutional amendment that expanded medical marijuana.
Under the proposed rule, only patients with one of 10 specific medical diagnoses, including cancer, HIV and post-traumatic stress disorder, would have access to the drug, unless the Florida Board of Medicine specifically identifies additional debilitating conditions. Amendment 2, however, gives doctors the power to recommend marijuana to patients with any debilitating condition if "a physician believe sthat the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks."
It's likely the rules will change from DOH's initial proposal.
Amendment 2 gives the department until July to write rules governing medical marijuana. But it also allows the Legislature to step in and provide its own direction, which leaders in both the House and Senate appear eager to do.
Public hearings, which anyone can attend to contribute their thoughts about the proposed rule, begin in February around the state. A schedule is below. As well, people can tell the department what they think using a public comment form on its website.
It has already garnered criticism from Florida for Care, the group that pushed Amendment 2 in the election.
"The Legislature has demonstrated a willingness and a desire to implement this amendment in a reasonable manner that respects the plain language of the constitution and reflects the mandate of the electorate," chairman Ben Pollara said in a statement. "Why DOH would choose to engage in a policymaking exercise which ignores both the law and the role of the Legislature in implementing the law is a mystery."
The rule would not allow any new growers or dispensaries to form in the state, leaving control of the market in the hands of the seven nurseries licensed to grow, process and sell cannabis in Florida already. (A 2014 law allowed patients with certain conditions, including children with severe epillepsy, to use strains of cannabis low in THC, the chemical that causes a euphoric high. These nurseries were selected under that law.)
It also does not allow for the separation of growing facilities from dispensaries, which Amendment 2 does not require but allows for.
The rule maintains most of the regulations put in place by the Legislature and the health department in creating the low-THC cannabis program, including requirements that doctors take an eight-hour training course and be registered with the state. It also maintains a statewide database of patients, as well as requiring that patients be issued an ID card, as required by the amendment.
Medical marijuana public hearings:
Jacksonville: 2-4 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Duval County Health Department, 900 University Blvd. North.
Fort Lauderdale: 10 a.m.-noon Feb. 7 at the Broward County Health Department, 780 SW 24th St.
Tampa: 9-11 a.m. Feb. 8 at the DOH Tampa Branch Laboratory, 3602 Sepctrum Blvd.
Orlando: 6-8 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Orange County Health Department, 6102 Lake Ellenor Drive.
Tallahassee: 4-6 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Betty Easley Conference Center, 4075 Esplanade Way, Room 148.
Photo: Associated Press.