This school year, children who rely on medical marijuana for a variety of ailments may be allowed to use the drug at school.
On June 23, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that established the framework for medical marijuana in Florida. In addition to legalizing cannabis oils, pills and edibles for eligible patients, the law allows qualified children to take the drug at school and requires school districts to develop medical marijuana policies.
Many advocates have cheered the decision, saying this is a victory for families who rely on the drug to treat epilepsy, cancer and other ailments.
“They will have to treat it like a medicine like they would any other medicine,” said Michael Minardi, an attorney and the campaign manager for the marijuana-legalization advocacy group Regulate Florida. “It will allow these patients who are children and need cannabis to actually go to school and feel like they have a normal life.”
But school boards across the state have been hesitant to develop policy on who can give the drug, where it will be stored and how it will be accounted for. That’s because, they say, the legislation is contradictory, inconsistent and does not give school districts the legal power to actually have anything to do with a child’s medical marijuana.
Mitch Teitelbaum, general counsel for the School District of Manatee County, said the law’s narrow definition of who can serve as a “caregiver” hamstrings Manatee and districts statewide. The law says only an approved caregiver can administer the drug to children. Teitelbaum said, under the law, school employees do not count as caregivers, so it is nonsensical to ask schools to develop policies on how to administer drugs they are not legally allowed to manage.
“The district is compelled to adhere to all state and federal laws,” Teitelbaum said. “But how do we do so with such inconsistency?”
The district is compelled to adhere to all state and federal laws. But how do we do so with such inconsistency?
Manatee Schools general counsel Mitch Teitelbaum
The law is intended to help children like Branden Petro, a Hillsborough County boy suffering from a rare form of epilepsy.
In January, an ABC Action News reporter was interviewing Brandon’s mother, Renee, about the benefits of a cannabis oil inhaler to control Branden’s seizures. In the midst of the interview, Branden began to seize. His mother knelt beside him, sprayed the cannabis oil into his nostrils and his seizure shortly stopped.
Cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain are included within the list of qualifying conditions.
In Manatee, the school board has not developed a medical marijuana policy, Teitelbaum said. The district uses NEOLA, a school policy consulting firm, to help develop new policies. NEOLA CEO Dick Clapp said his firm was still trying to figure out the best way to discern the legislation.
“I think schools are in a real tough spot,” Clapp said.
Clapp said the law contradicted the amendment Florida voters approved in November that led to the legislation. The original amendment did not require accommodation for using medical marijuana in schools, and Clapp said schools implementing a medical marijuana policy could be opening themselves up to a legal challenge for enacting a policy contrary to the amendment.
“If I were still a superintendent, I might be hard pressed to recommend to our board that we have a policy that could be challenged for violating the constitutional amendment,” Clapp said.
If I were still a superintendent, I might be hard pressed to recommend to our board that we have a policy that could be challenged for violating the constitutional amendement.
NEOLA CEO Dick Clapp
The possibility of allowing district employees to use medical marijuana is also problematic, said Andrea Messina, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. Messina said the law collides with current policy most districts have in place that requires employees to not come to work if their judgment is in any way compromised.
“Even if an employee had a prescription, that would compromise their judgment,” Messina said. “Can they be at work with some compromise to their full judgment?”
Manatee school board Chairman Charlie Kennedy said he didn’t anticipate many students being impacted, but he said he wanted the board to treat medical marijuana, as long as it was legal, like any other prescribed drug. He said if one district figures out the legal technicalities to craft a watertight policy, the other districts would all copy it.
“Statute supersedes policy,” Kennedy added.
But that might not happen this year. Clapp, when asked if districts would develop policies in time to be implemented during the 2017-18 school year, said, “That is the 64 million dollar question. Right now we are struggling to try to figure out what it is that we can do to help our clients.”
The Florida Department of Education frequently provides technical assistance papers to advise districts on how to implement legislation. DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said Friday the DOE had not yet provided any guidance to Florida’s 67 school districts. Spokespeople in Sarasota and Pinellas did not provide an answer as to whether the boards there had begun developing policies. Hillsborough spokesman Grayson Kamm said Hillsborough’s health services supervisors were reviewing district policies.
Messina said districts with higher number of children who are eligible for the drug are typically the quickest to develop policies. Clapp said while even though most districts would not have many people impacted, he empathized with parents and children wanting policies to be hammered out.
“The number of people that will be impacted will be a small number, but they are in dire situations, so it is a tough human-relations thing,” Clapp said. “I don’t know what we do about that.”