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Legislators propose medical marijuana legislation as a "framework" for constitutional amendment

For the fourth year, Democratic legislators and advocates for medical marijuana are pushing for a measure to legalize the drug. What makes all of them more hopeful about success this session is the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative amendment, which will be on the ballot Nov. 4.

“We’ve seen a seismic shift in how the legislature is beginning to look at these issues,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, at a press conference Monday to announce his 157-page bill, the "Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act" (SB 962), with House sponsor Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.

Clemens pointed to efforts by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, to decriminalize the strain of non-psychoactive marijuana known as “Charlotte’s Web” to help children with seizures, as a sign of bipartisan progress.

The medical marijuana measure proposed by Clemens and Saunders would be broader than the Charlotte’s Web effort, instead focusing on 24 specific “qualifying medical conditions,” including Alzheimer's Disease, cancer and chronic debilitating pain, plus treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Clemens called it a “tightly regulated framework of oversight” providing guidelines for both the licensing and permitting of dispensaries and medical cannabis farms, requiring registration identification cards, protections for doctors and protections to fight abuse, among other provisions.

"A blanket ban on access to medical marijuana is hurting Floridians," said Saunders. "We believe this bill represents the best course for implementing the constitutional amendment on this November's ballot but also gets help to those patients who simply can't wait."

Saunders and Clemens were flanked by families and patients who use medical marijuana to get relief from pain and disease, including Robert Jordan, whose wife Cathy has been helped by medical marijuana for decades while living with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Saunders was flanked by patients and family members, including Robert Jordan, a Vietnam vet whose wife Cathy has been helped by medical marijuana for decades while living with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. The bill is named for Cathy, who has been fighting to legalize marijuana from her wheelchair and was by her husband's side at Monday’s press conference.

This bill, said Robert Jordan, "puts patients before politics.” 

Last year, law enforcement seized marijuana plants from the Jordans’ house in Parrish, Florida, but charges were dropped.

Saunders said the proposed medicial marijuana bills filed Monday would "put into place what an overwhelming marority of Floridians support: a comprehensive program that allows access to cannabis for medical treatment in addition to regulating when and how it can be cultivated, dispensed and used."

 Patients in 20 states and the District of Columbia have already passed laws that allow access to medical marijuana. At least 60 percent of voters have to approve the amendment for Florida to become the first Southern state to legalize use of marijuana for health-related reasons.

At least one poll showed support at 82 percent with the recent Public Policy Polling survey putting voter backing at 65 percent.

But any legislation has to overcome opposition from state leadership, which challenged the medical marijuana amendment in Florida's Supreme Court. A divided court decided on Jan. 27th in a 4-3 vote that the ballot language for the proposed constitutional amendment meets all legal requirements. The ballot measure was championed by United for Care, an advocacy group headed by Orlando attorney John Morgan, who employs Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist.

But family members said their loved ones need help now.

Carl and January Petroff, of Satellite Beach, told reporters Monday that medical marijuana has helped their 18-year-old daughter Sheridan, get some relief from debilitating and excruciating pain after years of using “dangerous,” legal painkillers which “turned her into a zombie.” 

Ryan Roman was 22 when he was diagnosed with spinal cancer, which later spread to the brain. In 2010, he was “sent home to die,” Clemens said. But Roman, now 30, began using a concentrated oil form of medical marijuana, which he credits with helping him survive along with traditional options, and now is married and the father of a 2 ½-year-old daughter.

“We’re not criminals,” Roman said, “We’re here to gain a little bit of comfort.”

 Saunders said the proposed bill "will empower patients in Florida who are dealing with HIV, cancer, tumors, chronic and debilitating pain and a host of other ailments to work closely with a licensed Florida physician to integrate medical cannabis into their treatment.

"It would empower both the Department of Health and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation to create a tightly regulated framework of oversight, distribution and cultivation," he said. "In other words, those who need it will work with a doctor to get it and those who would abuse it would be punished."