Over the past four years, more than 2,000 doctors have issued cannabis recommendations for more than 500,000 Florida residents, enabling them to obtain medical marijuana cards and purchase a wide range of cannabis products to treat a wide range of ailments. The cardholders range from senior citizens with glaucoma to children with epilepsy and everybody in between.
In 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters approved an amendment to legalize medical marijuana, despite Republican efforts to derail the measure. The vote was a rare show of unity in a politically divided state.
Florida's Republican lawmakers responded by launching a nonstop campaign based on lies, myths, and misinformation to restrict access to the plant, despite polls showing more than half of Republican voters in the state support the legalization of cannabis.
The latest Republican attempt to sabotage the industry involves the party's never-ending obsession with THC levels. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers would restrict THC levels in cannabis flower to 10 percent. The bill would also restrict other cannabis products, such as concentrates, to 60 percent. A similar bill failed to pass last year.
THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets people high, but it also is effective in alleviating pain and managing symptoms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn's disease, nausea, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among other conditions.
Miami doctor Herve Damas, who is certified by the state to recommend cannabis to patients, is one voice in a chorus of doctors who oppose the bill.
"The only people this [bill] serves are alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical interests," Damas says. "The reason being is when you have medical marijuana or adult-use programs, you'll see a decrease in purchases of alcohol, you'll see a decrease in purchases of tobacco, you'll see a decrease in purchases of over-the-counter and prescription drugs."
Roach's bill would also make it harder for children to obtain medical marijuana, by requiring two pediatricians to approve a single recommendation for a child before they are able to receive cannabis.
"They are making it nearly impossible for any child to get a recommendation because there are maybe only three board-certified pediatricians in Florida who can recommend cannabis," says Moriah Barnhart, one of the state's leading marijuana activists.
Barnhart's advocacy started after her now-10-year-old daughter, Dahlia, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer at age 2. Dahlia responded better to cannabis than to traditional treatments.
"Nothing has helped my daughter the way cannabis does, not even with all the world's best scientists and researchers and all the best medicine at our fingertips," Barnhart says. "Cannabis improves her quality of life. It enables her to sleep, as well as eat and drink without a feeding tube, allowing her to gain enough weight to walk. Cannabis likely saved her life."
The THC cap would also affect adults like Jenifer Perdomo, a Miami woman who turned to cannabis after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015. Perdomo uses cannabis concentrates with THC levels close to 90 percent, but the bill would reduce that to 60 percent.
"I need the cannabis to be as strong as possible because I am allergic to pain medicine like morphine, which is what is prescribed for my type of pain," Perdomo says.
In February, after successfully keeping the cancer at bay for several years with the help of cannabis, Perdomo says the disease began attacking areas of her body that had previously been spared, and she was once again hospitalized.
"This fear at this precise time has been the worst for my mental sanity — not knowing if I'll have the cannabis I need during this upcoming treatment is one of the most unjust things the state has done to me," Perdomo wrote in a Facebook message from the hospital.
Damas says there are many cancer patients like Perdomo who prefer cannabis over opioids.
"The traditional analgesia prescribed for those patients are opioids, so they come to cannabis because it gives them an opportunity to get pain relief without the fear of addiction and without the side effects like allergic reactions, constipation, loss of focus, mental acuity," he says. "It's going to be hard for that person to get their pain down to a manageable point when you cap their THC, and they will have to consume more and more of it."
Forcing the cannabis companies to reduce THC levels will complicate cultivation, because the companies that grow marijuana plants already have seeds in the ground that will eventually sprout plants with higher THC levels that would be unsellable as flower, reducing supply and potentially forcing people away from legal cannabis to illegal cannabis.
"It's going to cost twice as much as what it costs now, and people will just start going to the black market," Damas predicts.
Roach's bill, which has stalled in the House's Health & Human Services Committee, would need to be passed by the full House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis before becoming law.
The governor this month told reporters that he does not "endorse" the bill but said today's cannabis contains "really bad stuff" compared to the street weed of 30 years ago — presumably a reference to THC levels. In Florida, state regulations require cannabis companies to obtain and provide lab reports of their products to ensure they're free of contaminants and safe for human consumption.
Currently, most of the cannabis flower sold in Florida ranges from 12 to 28 percent THC. From the 1960s to the 1980s, weed usually contained less than 5 percent THC because it was grown wild throughout the world and smuggled into the U.S. It was only when growers in California began crossbreeding strains in the 1970s that THC levels began to rise. The newly created strains were used to cultivate even more potent strains, resulting in those that are available today.
Even with rising THC levels, the biggest danger about consuming cannabis over the years has always been getting caught by police. As a rule, marijuana does not result in overdose, unlike legal prescription opioids, which kill thousands of people each year.
Nevertheless, Roach has drawn a false equivalency between the state's medical cannabis industry and the illicit pill mills that blanketed the state more than a decade ago.
"Our medical marijuana program is becoming a recreational drug-use program operating under the guise of a medical marijuana program," Roach claimed during a House Healthcare Appropriations Subcommittee, according to WFSU. "And just like the opioid crisis, we saw it overprescribed and we saw this medication getting trafficked across state lines. We saw it ended up in our high schools and being sold to children."
Damas, the doctor who recommends marijuana to his patients, says those comparisons are harmful. He believes Florida lawmakers need a more progressive approach to regulating the legal cannabis industry.
"Prohibition never worked," he says. "Alcohol prohibition was an absolute failure. Marijuana prohibition — an absolute failure. The War on Drugs — an absolute failure. So I think it's time we start rethinking these draconian and ham-handed policies and consider some forward thinking and less regressive approaches."
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