Legislature looking to move on medical marijuana, says Bradenton representative

BRADENTON -- The Florida Legislature has heard voters' call to action and is looking into drafting a bill to legalize medical marijuana and to avoid a constitutional amendment on the issue, said state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.

Amendment 2, which aimed last year to legalize medical marijuana throughout Florida, didn't garner the needed 60 percent of the vote to pass -- earning 57.6 percent approval. In fact, with 3,370,761 votes for its approval, the amendment earned about 500,000 more votes than re-elected Gov. Rick Scott in November.

As legislators draft their bills for the upcoming 2015 session, they are looking at how to act on those numbers. And Steube said he knows what needs to change from Amendment 2's ballot language to a become bill that has a chance of passing the Republican-dominated House and Senate. Both chambers are researching the issue, according to Steube.

"It would need to be very strictly regulated," Steube said. "We would want the bill to say, 'Here are the medical issues you can take it for, that's it.'"

Steube said legislation will look at legalizing marijuana generally for medical purposes, not just a strain like they did with Charlotte's Web last year. Charlotte's Web is a strain of marijuana with extremely low amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana associated with the

euphoric high.

The bill needs to name which diseases medical marijuana could be prescribed for, rather than the generic "debilitating diseases," Steube said.

Legislators also want to take a look at stricter regulation of the caregivers, especially making sure convicted felons can't be caregivers. Opponents of Amendment 2 commonly criticized its loose language on caregivers.

"We'd want to craft this in a way that makes sure we're not increasing recreational use, but we're getting the medical use to those who need it," Steube said.

Most of all, Steube emphasized that he believes the Florida Legislature is the proper medium for medical cannabis legalization.

"I'd prefer a statute that legislators can modify as we see how this rolls out versus a constitutional amendment, which is very restrictive when it comes to making changes," Steube said. "And frankly, I don't want it (medical marijuana) in our state constitution."

Opponents of the defeated Amendment 2 are nervous about the possibility of another one coming onto the ballot in 2016. John Morgan, the Orlando lawyer at the head of the Amendment 2 effort, already has submitted a revised amendment for the 2016 ballot, with slight changes in language to address criticisms from 2014.

"The language and the essence of the amendment are essentially the same," Morgan said in a Jan. 8 release. "What I would say is that we have tweaked or clarified positions that were constantly brought up by our opposition to help us talk more freely about the real issue, which is the legalization of medical marijuana."

Morgan would have to get 683,149 signatures, or 8 percent of the number of Florida votes in the 2012 presidential election, in order to get the issue back on the ballot.

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, one of those opponents, also Rep. Steube's father, said he doesn't want to see that happen.

"It was very close last time, and 2016 will be a presidential election year, which is when a lot of younger voters turn out," the sheriff said. "The chances of it passing will be a lot higher in 2016."

Brad Steube, treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Florida Sheriffs Association, advocated for a legislative approach to medical marijuana even before Amendment 2's close defeat. He said he'd want to see specific the bill's language before he could supported it, but listed a few concerns he would want addressed.

"Having specific illnesses listed is a great step," the sheriff said. "Another issue I'd want to see is regulation on THC levels and on how the product would be labeled when you look at things like edibles." Marijuana can be added to foods and ingested, as well as smoked.

The Florida Sheriffs Association has been speaking about medical marijuana, he added, and will meet on the issue at the end of the month.

Cathy and Bob Jordan, longtime supporters of the legalization of medical marijuana and leaders in the Florida Cannabis Action Network, said they also prefer that the issue be worked through the Legislature.

But they have their own concerns they want addressed.

Mainly, the Jordans contend, restricting convicted felons from being caregivers would be ridiculous.

"Why would that make a difference? With other pharmaceuticals that doesn't matter," Bob Jordan said. "Whether or not someone is a convicted felon, if they need medicine or their children needs medicine, you give it to them. So is this medicine or not?"

The Jordans said any bill on the legalization of marijuana should leave most decisions about the prescribing of marijuana to doctors, not to politicians. Bob Jordan said it "doesn't make any sense" for politicians to make medical decisions.

The Jordans were also skeptical about Sheriff Steube wanting to limit levels of THC, saying different levels of THC helped different illnesses. Cathy Jordan takes marijuana to treat her Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's Disease, and said THC levels are a necessary part of her medication.

"I'd say a good level would be a minimum of 7 percent THC and the maximum should be around 12 percent," Bob Jordan said.

The Jordans spoke with state representatives on the legislation to legalize Charlotte's Web, which aids in the treatment of patients with epilepsy, and they said they hoped the Legislature reaches out to them again when another medical marijuana bill is submitted.

As far as they're concerned, the sooner medical marijuana is legalized, the better.

"They can't stop this thing, so they need to get out in front of it," Bob Jordan said. "It's slow, but it seems like they're finally waking up."

Kate Irby, Herald online reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055.