An administrative law judge on Friday ordered the Florida Department of Health to start over and map out a new plan for growing, processing and selling a form of medical marijuana, known as Charlotte's Web.
Judge W. David Watkins of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, rejected the idea of a controversial lottery to pick the nurseries that would grow the plants, a decision that could impact when the marijuana oil will be available to patients.
Watkins stated in his order that after reviewing chemical and safety issues and testimony from growers, "I knew that the lottery became strictly a chance-based scenario and it wasn't merit-based or experience-based. And to me, I had to object to it."
The state legislature, in its last session, legalized Charlotte's Web, which is low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and high in CBD (cannabidiol) for patients with seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasms and cancer. The "Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014," requires the health department to have rules in effect by Jan. 1, 2015.
The department has estimated that about 125,000 children with intractable epilepsy could be eligible for the drug, and it could also be used by adults. Families lobbied hard to persuade reluctant legislators to open the door to limited use.
Costas Farms, Plants of Ruskin, Three Boys Farm and the Florida Medical Cannabis Association argued that the Department of Health exceeded its authority by proposing a lottery to award five licenses to cultivate, process and dispense a medicinal cannabis product and in widening the pool of applicants beyond the criteria specified by lawmakers. Representatives of these groups and hujndreds of others spoke about the rules during public hearings this summer.
"Unfortunately 5 months of rule making have 'gone up in smoke," " said Taylor Patrick Biehl, legislative programs director for the Capitol Alliance Group. which represents some growers and businesses interested in the industry.
"You can't throw somebody who is only marginally eligible into the bag," said Cerise Naylor, the association's executive director. "The department has to write measurable standards in selecting the five licensees and they cannot simply throw anybody who is marginally eligible into the bag."
Watkins stated his concerns about offering the safest item to the public. "Cannabis is a product that is not native to Florida," he ruled, "and the ability to grow the product safely and effectively depends on a number of complex factors which are not addressed in the proposed rules.
The judge noted that "There are approximately 75 nurseries that possess a valid certificate of registration for the cultivation of more than 400,000 plants, are operated by a nurseryman as defined in section 581.011, and have been operated as a registered nursery in Florida for at least 30 continuous years. These 75 nurseries represent the potential pool of applicants seeking to become one of the five dispensing organizations authorized under the Act."
The Florida Medical Cannabis Association said the ruling would also address issues about where Charlotte's Web could be sold.