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For patients seeking legal pot in Florida, process is a quick one


Floridians with severe illnesses are just a few weeks and a few hundred dollars away from buying weed through the state’s newly expanded medical marijuana program.

“You could probably go see a doctor today, and within a couple weeks be purchasing marijuana,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida for Care, the group pushing politicians to set patient-friendly rules.

One caveat: Patients can’t buy pot in the leafy green buds most commonly associated with the drug. Instead, cannabis is delivered through vaporizers, oral drops and nasal sprays.

Florida voters in November overwhelmingly passed Amendment 2, a measure that makes marijuana available to people with cancer, epilepsy, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. Gov. Rick Scott on June 23 signed a bill that eliminates a 90-day waiting period for pot patients.

Scott also removed sales taxes from cannabis transactions. Before he signed the bill, patients paid county sales taxes — typically 7 percent — on medical marijuana.

Patients who want to try weed start by visiting one of the 800 or so doctors who are permitted by the Florida Department of Health to recommend cannabis. Prices vary, but the initial visit typically costs about $200.

If the physician signs off, the patient applies to the Office of Medical Marijuana Use for a state ID card, which costs $75.

Next, patients find a supplier. The state has licensed seven organizations to grow, distribute and sell medical marijuana.

For Palm Beach County residents, the nearest retail location is near Miami International Airport. But dispensaries are allowed to deliver weed, so long as the product is transported by their employees, and not by FedEx, UPS or another carrier. The delivery fee will set you back $25.

Medical marijuana patient Karen Goldstein of Broward County said she has been in Florida’s cannabis program since March. She declined to disclose the medical condition that she’s being treated for. Even when Florida’s 90-day wait was in effect, winning permission for legal pot was a straightforward process, Goldstein said.

“It’s not difficult,” said Goldstein, who’s executive director of pro-pot group NORML of Florida.

Now, with no waiting period, it’s even easier. Some 20,000 Floridians already have registered for the state’s marijuana program, and proponents expect perhaps 500,000 patients to sign up in the coming years.

One quirk of Florida’s regulatory scheme is that marijuana isn’t sold in smoked form, so state-licensed dispensaries aren’t offering joints and bongs. John Morgan, the Orlando attorney who bankrolled the Amendment 2 campaigns in 2014 and 2016, has vowed to sue to force the state to make smoked marijuana available.

Goldstein said she uses a vaporizer pen to consume cannabis, which she prefers to prescription drugs.

“It is the safer alternative to most of what they’re offering in pharmacies,” Goldstein said. “It helps me sleep.”

Florida’s cannabis sales have ramped up so quickly after Amendment 2 passed because the state already had created a budding marijuana industry. Sales of so-called noneuphoric marijuana oil began in 2016 to patients with cancer, seizure disorders and other ailments.

That type of cannabis, also known as Charlotte’s Web, is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which makes users feel high, but it’s packed with another compound known as cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is thought to ease convulsions, inflammation, anxiety and nausea.

Another measure enacted in Tallahassee in 2016 let patients with terminal illnesses use full-strength marijuana, so long as doctors certify they’re likely to die within a year. The pot growers created to meet demand from those programs are allowed to sell cannabis under Amendment 2.

Marijuana has gone so mainstream that fully 71 percent of Floridians voted in favor of Amendment 2 in November, during the same election that saw Donald Trump easily win the state.

Despite the electorate’s embrace of weed, pot remains a touchy political subject. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, has hinted at a crackdown in states such as Colorado and Washington, which allow the sale of recreational marijuana. Pot remains federally illegal, rendering it an all-cash business.

The Republican-dominated Legislature failed to pass a regulatory scheme during this year’s regular session, waiting instead for a special session. And some 250 counties and municipalities in Florida have blocked pot shops from opening within their borders.

As a result, Pollara said, “It is available, but it’s not widely available.”

Compared to thriving cannabis industries in California and Colorado, Florida’s product choices remain narrow, said Dr. Anthony Hall, a Lauderhill physician who’s part

“It’s still not a big marketplace,” Hall said. “From the patient’s perspective, there’s limited choice.”

That means it’s hard to customize the ratio of THC to CBD in a patient’s pot. What’s more, Florida cannabis tends to cost 10 percent to 40 percent more than marijuana sold in other states, Hall said.

While Hall has embraced the therapeutic uses of cannabis, physicians remain generally skeptical of weed’s usefulness. Dr. Barry Seidman of Delray Beach paid $1,000 for an eight-hour course that certified him to recommend pot, but he said he has yet to see a patient who would benefit from weed.

“The list of diagnoses (in Amendment 2) are very few,” Seidman said. “It’s almost too much work for the doctor who’s prescribing it.”

While Seidman said he’s trying to keep an open mind about cannabis, he’s not convinced that it’s really medicine.

“I have no strong liking for marijuana,” Seidman said. “If it were illegal, I’d be fine with that, too.”

Pot proponents say weed’s stigma remains a stumbling block to the growth of the marijuana industry.

“We’re really trying to move mindsets,” said Monica Russell, spokeswoman for Surterra Wellness, which grows marijuana at locations in Tampa and Tallahassee. “It’s an all-natural, safe alternative to something like an opiate. This could help a lot of people with many different illnesses.”

RELATED COVERAGE:

Inside Colorado’s pot shops: A picture of Florida’s future?

Even when pot is legal, bosses can fire workers for testing positive

John Morgan and Sheldon Adelson: Meet the money men behind Florida’s pot fight

Hazy science: Is weed a wonder drug?

Why marijuana businesses can’t get a checking account

Disappointment for medical pot patients who revealed their secret during Amendment 2 campaign



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