State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has refiled a bill allowing the medical use of marijuana after the Legislature largely ignored a nearly identical bill he proposed in 2015, but Florida's medical cannabis legalization movement is moving ahead with its own campaign.
The bill would allow medical use of non-smokable marijuana for people with cancer; HIV; AIDS; epilepsy; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease; multiple sclerosis; Crohn's disease; Parkinson's; and a terminal illness where a person has less than a year to live.
The main difference between the 2015 and 2016 bills is the refiled version emphasizes it must be "low-THC cannabis," referring to tetrahydrocannabinol, the compound in marijuana that produces the feeling of euphoria. Low-THC means levels of less than 0.8 percent, according to the bill.
The pro-medical marijuana organization United for Care will push ahead with a ballot initiative in 2016, officials said, and they aren't going to wait for action on bills filed on the subject.
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"It's just not strictly relevant," said Ben Pollara, director for United for Care. "I think Rep. Steube has been great on this issue, but the
Legislature has proven that they're not going to act on this unless they're forced."
Neither the House nor the Senate version of the medical marijuana bill made it to committee in 2015.
State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, has said House leadership wants to wait on consideration of medical marijuana until all the kinks have been worked out involving Charlotte's Web, a low-THC cannabis specifically developed to treat epilepsy. The Legislature legalized Charlotte's Web in 2014, but implementation through distributors has run into problems and the strain still isn't available yet.
"There's still room for us to see what's appropriate with this (Charlotte's Web)," the deputy majority leader and majority whip for the Florida House said after the 2015 session. "I think we need to get this in place and watch the effects of it for a period of time before we do anything dramatically different."
Steube said with litigation over Charlotte's Web worked out, the new bill has a chance in the 2016 session.
"With those issues sorted out, now we can look at moving forward," he said.
However, Steube said it's United for Care's right to pursue the ballot initiative, and he doesn't expect the group to change its course based on his proposed legislation.
Pollara said they've collected about 300,000 signatures for the ballot initiative so far, which is 250,000 more than they had in August 2013, before medical marijuana was placed on the 2014 ballot and narrowly failed to garner the 60 percent of the vote needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
"We didn't want to go back on the ballot ... but neither of the bills were even given the respect of a first hearing," Pollara said. "So I'm not holding my breath, and we're going to charge ahead."
Like the 2015 bill, the new version provides regulations on medical marijuana prescriptions, caregivers, retailers and distributors. Patients with prescriptions would have to keep an identification card with them and be entered on an online registry searchable by law enforcement, and could not consume cannabis in public places, workplaces where an employer has forbidden it, in a correctional institution or in schools, excluding higher education.
In addition to illnesses listed in Steube's bill, the ballot initiative under United for Care would allow use of medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma and any debilitating medical condition where a doctor believes "the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."
The initiative has more lenient regulations than Steube's bill, and many have expressed concern over the difficulties with changing a constitutional amendment over a law originating in the Legislature, which lawmakers can more easily tweak if issues arise. A constitutional amendment tends to be set in stone, since a statewide vote would be necessary to change it.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby.