Gary J. Stein: A medical marijuana bill ‘written in the spirit of the constitutional amendment’

It’s time that we shift the medical and judicial focus regarding marijuana. In 2010 there were 38,329 deaths caused by drug overdose: 22,134 from pharmaceutical drugs, 16,651 from pharmaceutical opioid analgesics and zero from marijuana.

This year, three initiatives are moving forward in Florida that can help control the quality, quantity and delivery of a substance that can help thousands of suffering Floridians. Last year the Florida Senate let die a legislative proposal known as SB 1250, relating to medical cannabis, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. But this year is different. 2013 bills SB 1250 and HB 1139, also known as the “Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act” in honor of an ALS victim and medical marijuana activist by that name, have been raised from the dead and given a chance to step out into the sunshine in the Florida Legislature.

For the fourth year, Sen. Clemens is submitting a new version of his bill. But this time, his legislation has some major allies.

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, has introduced in the U.S. House a bill known as ”Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act of 2014 (H.R. 4046).” It repeals a little known provision of federal law that requires the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also known as the U.S. drug czar, to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use” of marijuana or any Schedule I drug for medical or non-medical use. So the office was forced to oppose any and all attempts at legalization for any reason and prohibited from expressing any true opinion on the topic. The provision prevented the drug czar from even studying legalization.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is working on setting up rules that will allow legal marijuana dispensaries greater access to the banking system by allowing prosecutors to not prioritize cases involving those dispensaries that use banks. Encouraging the connections between banks and dispensaries can reduce the public safety hazard of huge amounts of cash being stored in those establishments, and allowing them to deposit those funds. That situation, he stated, is “something that would worry me, just from a law enforcement perspective.”

Here in Florida the big game-changers had been the successful placing of a proposed constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot and the bipartisan filing of bills in both chambers of the Florida Legislature to legalize a particular strain of medical marijuana called “Charlotte’s Web,” which treats children with severe seizure disorders.

The filing of Clemens’ bill, along with the House version that was filed by state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, actually took some legislators by surprise in light of the constitutional amendment initiative and the Charlotte’s Web bills. It prompted one official to ask, “What is the point and real motivation in two [Democrats] filling another medical marijuana bill?” John Morgan, the lawyer who was instrumental in the rewriting of and successful petition drive for the constitutional amendment, had quickly dismissed it as a “publicity stunt.”

In response to those concerns, I read the 170-page bill (HB 859) and I spoke with its sponsor, Rep. Saunders.

“There was a concern that this bill was in competition with the [Gaetz/Edwards] bill, and that is just not the case. It can definitely help some people,” Saunders told me. State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, are co-sponsors of HB 843 legalizing the strain of marijuana known as Charlotte’s Web.

“I’ll support it, I’ll co-sponsor it and definitely vote for it, but we need to make it clear to the public that there are other people who can and should be helped by the medical benefits of cannabis,” Saunders said.

Saunders believes that the means to that end may well be the constitutional amendment, which he feels has a very good chance of passing. “But,” he advised, “the amendment has a timeline of six to nine months for the Department of Health and the Legislature to agree on all the points to implementation. This bill was written in the spirit of the constitutional amendment. Why not start working on those points and having the debates here and now, and get a jump-start on the bill by several months?”

Saunders’ bill also covers various points not included in the proposed amendment.

“One item that I like, which was not addressed in the constitutional amendment, is the requirement that all medical marijuana prescribed to patients be grown in Florida,” Saunders said. “It takes off the table the problem that marijuana might be imported from other states and that we would be engaged in crossing state lines for transportation or delivery — a place we don’t want to go.”

He added that Florida is the perfect place to grow the product, and that would allow Florida to regulate it and create jobs.

Florida is already growing a $10 billion illegal crop that is being sold and delivered, in the underground market, to anyone, including youth and felons – two groups that greatly concern amendment opponents. Strong legislation like the Cathy Jordan Act will facilitate the amendment’s implementation and get medical marijuana to the people who truly need it, while establishing rules and laws that can prevent abuse.

It can very well be a win-win situation that will make Floridians proud.

Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post.

Gary Stein

Author: Gary Stein

Gary J Stein, MPH has a Master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins and spent 2 decades in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tracking and educating on STD's, HIV and Tuberculosis. He also worked for several years in the Florida Department of Health, as Program Director for the Hillsborough Tobacco Control Program and Program Manager in the Office of Health Equity. He frequently contributes to the Huffington Post and advocates for Health Care Reform. Last legislative session, he testified in front of the Florida House and Senate committee on the Affordable Care Act. He currently is the Executive Director of Health Equity Connections and Accountable Care, Inc. (HECAC), a startup 501©3 non-profit organization dedicated to connecting people to wellness resources for better health, better healthcare and reduced costs.

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