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Florida's first medical marijuana is now available, but patients say the wait for healing is not over

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PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

But after Clark ran out of the first sample of medical marijuana given to her, it became increasingly difficult to acquire more. She traveled to other states to learn more about the drug and its particularities and differences from recreational marijuana. Sometimes after hearing her story, people would hand her street weed, not realizing it was useless for Christina because it had no CBD. When Clark couldn't get medical marijuana, Christina would regress: not eating by mouth, sleeping constantly, drooling.

Clark joined the CannaMoms, a medical marijuana advocacy group of Florida mothers who want the product for their children. They lobbied the Florida Legislature, and in 2014 Gov. Rick Scott signed the "Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act," allowing nurseries to grow marijuana low in THC for patients with cancer and medical conditions that cause chronic seizures or muscle spasms.

But in the two years since, parents and their sick children have waited and waited and waited as red tape and a legal fight between the state Department of Health and prospective growers have mired Florida's path to medical marijuana. Some families moved to other states more friendly to the plant, while Clark and many others took matters into their own hands as the state lagged behind and formed underground networks to get medical marijuana for their children, even if it meant being labeled as criminals.

Last week, Tallahassee grower and dispensary Trulieve announced it was the first dispensary in the state to receive formal authorization from the Florida Department of Health to begin dispensing medical marijuana. The company's CEO, Kim Rivers, said their products would be available to patients as early as Tuesday, July 26.

For Clark and other parents, the news is bittersweet. Florida had asked them for time they didn't have. Children and adult patients died as the months passed by. While some patients may finally start to get relief this month, some say the law limits the strength of the product and it will be a gamble to try medical marijuana from nurseries that are growing it for the first time. And patients with conditions not on the list won't be able to try medical marijuana; they have to wait to see whether voters pass Amendment 2 in November.

"In Florida, you only have three choices," Clark says. "You die, you treat yourself or you leave."

Why has it taken so long to get limited medical marijuana in the state? Jay Wolfson, a health law professor at the University of South Florida, says the answer is unfortunately a simple one: politics and money.

At first, the state Health Department was going to use a lottery process to award licenses for nurseries to grow and dispense medical marijuana, but later, they were compelled to come up with a different licensing system and chose to make it a competitive process. Out of the 24 nurseries across the state that applied, health officials chose five in different regions of the state after going through 30,000 pages of material.

Other nurseries filed lawsuits against the Health Department regarding the ways the chosen five were picked, which, after multiple legal challenges, led to one more nursery being added to the original five approved dispensing organizations. Since the first law in 2014, legislators also passed the "Right to Try Act," which lets terminally ill patients try full-strength medical marijuana high in THC for their pain even though it's not approved under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Health officials require patients who need low-THC medical cannabis to visit a state-approved physician – or two, if they're under 18 – who will put them on the Compassionate Use Registry. Being on the registry allows patients to go to the dispensing organization to pick up the product. Terminal patients who only have a year to live must confirm their diagnoses with two physicians for full-strength cannabis.

"The process itself, reflecting the political and financial interests and clashes, is naturally slow, and encumbered by lawsuits, regulatory process and the lack of [an] accepted statewide model for how to manage even the practical aspects of medical marijuana," Wolfson says.

Central Florida's Treadwell Nursery is one of the applicants challenging the state Health Department's rules. Derek Bruce, an attorney for Treadwell, says his clients had the third-highest rated application in the state but was denied a license simply because it was in the same region as the two highest-rated nurseries. Treadwell Nursery did their homework, Bruce says, researching the products, getting their finances in order and building a greenhouse.

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