On November 2016, the people of Florida spoke their mind. By voting yes on Amendment 2, Floridians approved a ballot that commands legislators to develop the necessary policies to “legalize medical marijuana for individuals with specific debilitating diseases or comparable debilitating conditions as determined by a licensed state physician.”
However, in the two and a half years that followed, the skies that appeared to be clearing for many medical marijuana patients in need for medication, started showing signs of bad weather.
Whether out of genuine concern, plain ignorance or merely as an act of extreme conservatism, some members of the Florida legislature have been pushing for policies that are delaying and limiting patients’ access to medical cannabis. They are completely ignoring the voters explicit choice. The first one, meant to ban smokable flowers from dispensaries was successfully shut down by Gov. Ron DeSantis. A new one, however, which intends to limit THC levels on cannabis products, is coming up across Florida’s sky like a grey cloud of unsettling rain.
The Storm Gone By: No Smokables
After 71% of responsible adults decided to vote ‘Yes’ on Florida’s Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative (which required a super-majority vote of 60% to pass), the regulation presented included a renowned controversy: Cannabis could be sold to medical patients in the forms of tinctures, edibles, vaping oils, topicals and drops, but flower buds meant for smoke were kept out of the equation.
The main reasons lawmakers offered for this decision was a concern that allowing the intake of cannabis through smoke inhalation would pave the way to the habit of recreational use becoming normal. This idea sprouts from the frequently-found, yet completely unjustified notion that smoking cannabis cannot be considered legitimate medicine, and proper medication should come in more habitual forms like drops and edibles. Though this is a common idea in conservative sectors, it’s underlaid by a social preconception towards the ‘stoner’ and a rejectment for a caricaturesque characterization of marijuana smokers.
Although this might look like a superficial problem, since patients would get the chance to take in the plant’s main active components through some method or another, it actually drags a set of social consequences with it, particularly for low-income sectors.
As the form of marijuana with the least possible processing, flower buds are the most accessible form of cannabis medicine in terms of price/effect relation. Also, “smoking cannabis provides rapid and efficient delivery of THC to the brain” that cannot be achieved as effectively through other methods of consumption.
This is why John Morgan, the lawyer that successfully led (and financed) the campaign for the medical marijuana amendment, sued the state of Florida, stating that the flower ban was unconstitutional, and a decision against the voters’ will. Judge Karen Gievers ruled in favor of Morgan, stating that “The ability to smoke medical marijuana was implied” in the constitutional language “and is, therefore, a protected right”, but the flower ban was held alive by an appeal filed by Rick Scott’s -the Sunshine State’s previous governor- administration. The prohibition would’ve stood indefinitely until the appeal got resolved, however, Scott’s mandate ended and his office passed on to Ron DeSantis, Florida’s current Governor. A cannabis supporter, DeSantis took it as one of his first tasks to get smokables back in business. After assuming as governor on January 8, he stated that unless the legislature worked on repeal on the ban, his administration would drop the appeal set by his predecessor.
The Storm Ahead: Limits on THC Levels
Although Gov. DeSantis’ umbrella was big enough to cover the sunshine state from the first batch of anti-legalization showers, a new wind is rising from within Florida’s Legislature, which could eventually get many Floridians wet, striking leaks on their wallets, and molding up their access to medical cannabis, especially for those of lowest incomes.
The republican majority in Florida’s legislature is making itself strongly felt when it comes to cannabis legalization policies. “It’s no surprise the Republican controlled legislature doesn’t want to legalize adult-use cannabis,” said state rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. “They didn’t want medical cannabis either, but 71% of voters disagreed. Eventually the voters will overrule the legislature. It’s not if, but when. Floridians need to get woke.”
Smith, alongside state rep. Michael Grieco filed a bill last month, which, if approved, would legalize adult-use recreational consumption. The bill, however, died without a hearing or vote yesterday. Meanwhile, a bill meant to limit THC content on cannabis products to 10%, is making its way to the governor’s office without much struggle.
The legislation, proposed by the Health & Human Services Committee, chaired by republican state sen. Ray Rodrigues, would also make it harder for sick children to access medical cannabis. As of today, patients under 18 years old need approval from two doctors in order to apply for medical cannabis treatment. If the prescribed medicine includes smoking, the second doctor must be a board-certified pediatrician. The new bill would extend the need for a certified pediatrician to all forms of cannabis, not only inhaled smoke.
Patients Are the Ones Getting Soaked
However, the main concern for patients and medical marijuana supporters lays on the 10% THC cap on all smokable products. Arguing for this measure, Rodriguez quoted studies that point to possible relations between high-potency marijuana use and the early development of mental disorders like psychosis and schizophrenia. Although the studies did find a possible link, evidence is not conclusive, as a staff analysis from the House of Representatives pointed out: “The full extent of the health impact of consuming products with high concentration of THC is unknown; research indicates that use of such products significantly increases the risk of marijuana-associated psychosis”.
Yet, the real concern behind the 10% cap is not whether it’s based on validated science. The main complaint is how impractical it is, because, as stated by Ben Pollara, the measure will simply force patients to ”buy more marijuana to achieve the same effect as if the caps were not in place,”. Pollara is a campaign manager for one of the committees that pushed for the 2016 amendment. He called the bill “a tax on patients”, since many of them will be forced to purchase twice as much cannabis in order to get relief for their ailments.
Ironically enough, having to smoke twice as much flowers would go straight against the entire idea of the smokables ban, which was initially propelled by Rodrigues as a way to ensure a safe method of consumption for patients, on account of smoking being potentially prejudicial to health.
But this measure could not only be a hustle for patients. Since a 10% THC limit is well under industry standards, producers would have to breed new strains to abide to the proposed law, causing the market to interrupt its cycle, risking shortages in supply for the upcoming seasons.
The objective behind the 2016 ballot was to give medical professionals the authority to treat patients with medical forms of marijuana. That’s why a key point in the ballot included the phrase “as determined by a licensed state physician”. As such, it was the people’s choice to put it in the hands of MDs to analyze each case and carefully decide on the correct treatment. So, while clinical studies did find a possible link between daily marijuana use and the risk of developing mental disorders, evidence is still not conclusive, and efforts to narrow down physician’s responsibility are, by definition, unconstitutional.
Furthermore, what this restrictive measures are doing is not helping patients stay healthier, it’s simply forcing them to spend more money on treatment, or perpetuating their reliance on black market products. So, while the relationship between marijuana use and mental illness must definitely be explored and taken into consideration, the proper way of doing it is not through restrictive policies that are but the rigor mortis from the dying arms of prohibition. The correct approach, is pushing for policies that help lift the federal ban on research, so that lawmakers, physicians and patients can use extensive scientific research to form valid opinions based on conclusive evidence, instead accommodating the results of the few studies available, to serve as evidence for their own political agenda.