Editorial: Regulations on medical marijuana must make access easy

Medical marijuana is now legal in Florida for a number of debilitating ailments such as HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s in the state Constitution, thanks to Amendment 2, swept in by 71 percent of voters in November.

But the law, enacted on Jan. 3, has barely gone into effect. Under the amendment’s terms, the Florida Legislature is supposed to draw up regulations by July 3 which are to go into effect by Sept. 3. Meantime, the state Department of Health (DOH) is drafting interim rules while the Legislature crafts a more lasting law — and so far the proposals fall far short of what the Florida public is looking for.

The shortcomings became clear earlier this month when Department of Health officials held hearings in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee. Almost 1,300 people turned out to press for far less restrictive access to a medical form of marijuana. And they let their displeasure fly.

“You are the Office of Compassionate Use,” said a Tallahassee participant named Josephine Canella-Krehl, according to WFSU News. “We are the 71.3 percent. Hear. Us. Roar.”

Why the outcry? Let’s start with how the marijuana is to be grown, processed and sold as oil and pills to patients. The department’s idea is to leave that solely in the hands of seven licensed grower/distributors – those already chosen under the narrower medical marijuana law passed by the Legislature in 2014.

A bill proposed by state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, (SB 406) would keep that framework, though five more licenses would be issued within six months of there being 250,000 patients in the state.

Whether seven or a dozen, limiting the entire medical marijuana industry to that small universe of companies is bound to be inadequate for the huge number of potential patients in this state. The lid is likely to keep prices artificially high. And it’s surely contrary to the usual conservative demand that government stay out of the free market.

A better idea comes from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has filed a bill (SB 614) that would break up the monopoly system that now requires a single company to grow, process, transport and dispense medical marijuana. The bill would eliminate a cap on the number of medical marijuana treatment centers in the state, but limit licenses to one for every 25,000 people in a county.

Another doozy of a proposal from DOH officials would require doctors to wait 90 days after first seeing a patient before they can write a medical marijuana prescription. This is taking bureaucracy to the point of cruelty. Yes, the state has an interest in ensuring that prescriptions be written for the genuinely ill. But why force someone with a painful cancer to wait three months for relief?

Perversely, that doctor could, in the meantime, legally prescribe an addictive opioid. We know from our current heroin crisis how well that can work out.

Yet another DOH regulation would limit the ailments covered by medical marijuana to the 10 “debilitating medical conditions” listed in the amendment. The state Board of Medicine would have to approve any changes — even though Amendment 2 says doctors can prescribe the drug whenever they think it’s appropriate.

Whatever happened to the insistence that government never get between doctors and patients? Or does that apply only when criticizing Obamacare?

So far, we’re seeing too many regulatory proposals that seem designed to offer medical marijuana in the most begrudging way: limit this, prolong that.

What we need are rules that reflect the spirit of the amendment: to make medical marijuana as easily and widely available as possible for the hundreds of thousands of sick Floridians who are impatient for it.

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