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Gaetz's marijuana bill gets puff of new life

MarijuanaAfter weeks of delay, Florida House leaders have cleared the way for the sponsor of a bill to advance legislation that would allow for the cultivation, distribution and sale of a strain of marijuana in Florida that could be used to treat children with seizures. 

“I think enough people have opened their hearts and minds and we now have some downhill momentum,’’ said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House Criminal Justice subcommittee chairman. He said he is drafting a bill that would decriminalize the strain of non-psychoactive marijuana known as “Charlotte’s Web” and he expects it to pass. 

“I am confident the Legislature will deliver to the governor a medical marijuana bill,” Gaetz told the Herald/Times.

Gaetz had faced an uphill climb since he first conducted a workshop in January to hear from the families of children who suffer from frequent life-threatening epileptic seizures. 

The families testified that anecdotal evidence shows one last hope for treating their sick children may be a strain of marijuana high in cannabidiol, the ingredient that controls seizures, and low in tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the compound that creates a high.

The testimony was so compelling that nearly every member of the subcommittee said they would support the legislation. But House Speaker Will Weatherford and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dennis Baxley were skeptical of the proposal. 

Baxley said the measure could be misread by the public as an endorsement of the proposed constitutional amendment going before voters in November that would legalize all strains of marijuana for medical purposes and he would not support the bill -- a signal that stalled any action. Many conservative Republicans, including Gaetz, Gov. Rick Scott and the attorney general, oppose the amendment.

On Tuesday, Gaetz had planned to send a message that his committee supported the bill anyway. He drafted an amendment to attach the proposal to a bill relating to reforming the state’s drug sentencing laws and had the votes to pass it.

Instead, he withdrew the amendment and announced after the meeting that he would draft a stand-alone bill in its place. 

“Originally we were going to have to hit every bank shot to make Charlotte’s Web legal, and now I think we can deal with the issue straight on,’’ he said. 

Also helpful was the fact that several members of the Republican caucus had also heard from many of the families of the 125,000 children in Florida who suffer from epileptic seizures, Gaetz said.

“There was an interest from the members to have a debate about this issue,’’ said Rep. Steve Crisafulli, the House majority leader from Merritt Island who is designated to be the Republican House speaker next year.

Crisafulli said he also supports allowing families to have access to the non-addictive marijuana extract  to treat their children.

“I believe there’s a group of people who could certainly benefit from that product more than giving them high doses of more intensive drugs that have damaging side effects,’’ he said.

In a statement Wednesday, Weatherford said: "The arguments for bill are compelling. But I will defer to chairman Gaetz and Baxley to determine the bill's future."

But if the bill arrives on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, the Republican governor looks like he’s not ready to let the idea become law. 

When asked about the issue, the Scott refrains from answering. Instead, he has consistently launched into a recitation of his opposition to drug abuse. 

Reporter: “Governor, I wanted to ask you about an issue that came up in the House today. Are you still opposed to legislation that would allow for an isolated strain of marijuana that would be non-psychoactive and be designed to help kids with seizures?”

Scott: “Well, I think that anybody that has a disease your heart goes out to them. Now look, I’ve seen the problem with alcoholism. I’ve seen the problem with illegal drug abuse. So it concerns me so.”

Gaetz said he hasn’t asked the governor about the issue but is confident there will be enough support for the measure in both the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, after the subcommittee adjourned, Gaetz met behind closed doors with 11 members of his committee, including both Democrats and Republicans, to map out a plan for drafting the bill.

Rep. Charlies Van Zant, R-Palatka, considered one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, suggested that the bill refer to the marijuana strain by its medical name instead of Charlotte’s Web.

“Let’s think of a name that’s more accepted,’’ he said.

Gaetz commended the group for its bi-partisan support and they thanked him for pursuing the issue.

The initial concept is to use the state’s land grant universities to conduct the research into how to extract the oils, provide oversight for the cultivation of the plant and evaluate its efficacy, Gaetz said. Lawmakers also plan to establish guidelines for distribution of the product, retail sales and enforcement of the laws.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do to analyze the options available,” Gaetz said. But, he told his colleagues, “we’re having an important conversation in Florida.”