TALLAHASSEE -- Florida regulators said they expect to provide access to a limited strain of non-euphoric marijuana for medical purposes by the end of the year after a Tallahassee judge Wednesday dismissed the final challenge to the long-awaited rule.
The Florida Department of Health, which developed the rule, is expected to start accepting applications within three weeks from eligible growers for the strain of marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. Growers could start selling to eligible patients who are put on a state-run "compassionate use registry'' within months.
"I am one happy legislator," said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, one of the sponsors of the 2014 legislation that attempted to expedite the development and cultivation of the so-called "Charlotte's Web" strain of low-THC marijuana to help people suffering from epileptic seizures, cancer and other ailments.
Legislators had intended for the medical strain of cannabis to be available to Floridians by January of this year but regulators had their first rule rejected, and then faced a series of legal challenges. On Wednesday, they offered patients new hope.
"Today's ruling allows the department to move forward with implementing the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, approved by the legislature in 2014," the Department of Health said in a statement. "The department remains committed to ensuring safe and efficient access to this product for children with refractory epilepsy and patients with advanced cancer. We are moving swiftly to facilitate access to the product before the end of the year."
The ruling by Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins came after two days of testimony and more than a year after the Legislature had passed the law. The rule challenge was brought by Baywood Nurseries of Apopka whose owners, Raymond Hogshead and Heather Zabinofsky, alleged that the rule proposed by the state were unfair and vague.
Watkins is the same judge who tossed out DOH's first attempt at a rule last year, prompting the agency's Office of Compassionate Use to hold a rulemaking workshop involving a handpicked panel of advisors from various parts of the industry.
Under the law, nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years in Florida and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants are eligible to apply for one of five licenses to grow and distribute marijuana within the state. About 100 nurseries meet the criteria, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Under the proposed rule, dispensing organizations would have to prove that they would be able to stay in business for at least two years and be able to cover not only the bond but what could be expensive start-up costs.
The agency will next certify the rule, expected to take about 20 days, and applications would then be submitted within 21 days after that.
"Start your engines," said Taylor Biehl, of Capital Alliance Group, which represents a consortium of cannabis growers who want to cultivate and distribute the strain in Florida.
Gaetz said he hoped this was the end of the legal challenges.
"It is my hope that when licenses are issued we will not have another round and we can get medicine into the hands of the vulnerable as soon as possible," he said.