Low THC discussed at Sarasota summit

SARASOTA -- AltMed president and chief executive officer David Wright believes that the definition of a low-THC cannabis needs to be expanded so it can help more patients.

"Just having a low THC-high CBD product that only treats a small portion of the people who can benefit doesn't seem fair to me," said Wright, who leads the Lakewood Ranch-based medical marijuana company. "It seems to me that we are saying these people are special and get it, but all your other people who can use it can't have it."

Wright is taking part in the Smart Justice Summit, a three-day conference where more than 250 policymakers including sheriffs, judges, state attorneys, public defenders and more than 20 state legislators are discussing problems in the criminal justice system and possible ways to improve the system in Florida. This year's summit, which began Monday, includes discussion of the legalization of medical marijuana.

During an hour-long session Monday about low THC, proponents of medical marijuana -- including Wright, along with AltMed's director of government relations Ron Watson and Seth Hyman, business development and special projects director for Kelley Kronenberg law firm -- discussed the benefits of legalization of the oil-based strain of marijuana rich in cannabidiol and low in THC, in addition to the glitches with Senate Bill 1030.

Under Senate Bill 1030, passed by the Florida Legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Scott last spring, five state nurseries would be selected to legally dispense an oil-based strain of marijuana rich in cannabidiol (CBD) and low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces the euphoric "high" associated with the recreational drug. The law limits the composition of the final product to no more than .8 percent THC.

AltMed is hoping to be one of the five state nurseries selected to dispense the oil, which can relieve seizures for some people. The Legislature approved the bill, but some potential producers filed a lawsuit saying the selection process wasn't fair.

For Hyman, whose daughter has a severe genetic disorder which results in frequent daily seizures, the road has been personal.

"There are patients like my daughter who are suffering and who can die," he said. "It is imperative that we collectively as Floridians share the importance of this happening very fast."

With the current .8 percent THC restriction, Hyman said as a parent and caregiver, if his daughter requires a higher amount, he would not be able to give it to her.

"That's why expansion is needed," Hyman said. "It has taken a toll on myself and other families."

Watson, who is also president of Watson Strategies, a lobbying firm that has lobbied for the passage of SB 1030, said recreational versus medicinal uses must be separated.

"I want to be honest about what we need in the medicinal world," he said, adding that there is a large educational piece. "Take what you learn here and share it with other people. This is truly medicine and we want to make it right."

Over the last two years, there has been a shift in Florida as marijuana was entirely illegal then, said State Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres.

"Now you have broken down that barrier," he said. "What a huge seat change in the way this issue has been approached."

One of the largest errors in the bill was forgetting to allow the testing labs to legally possess the drug so they can test it. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana a schedule one drug, which means there are no accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse.

"Because marijuana has been a schedule one drug, there hasn't been as much testing as we would like," Hyman said. "We don't know which ones truly can help different medicial aliments."

While Hyman said he personally doesn't need a doctor to know how to use the medicine for his daughter, he said his biggest concern is how doctors in the state will get up to speed.

At AltMed, Wright said, they have thought all along that it will be up to the company to give advice to doctors and patients.

"We are going to have patient care specialists," he said. "We are going to have information on dosage. We are going to have physician panels. Every new drug that comes on the market, the company is responsible. It is going to be our responsibility to do this and work with groups to make sure that this happens."

Wright said the dispensary shouldn't be required to be on the growth or manufacturing site so it can be made more readily available to patients. Wright added that the nursery owner should have experience with growing marijuana.

"The concept of 'if you can grow tomatoes you can grow marijuana' is absolutely insane," he said. "This is medicine for people, not tomatoes."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.