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Florida Health Department update on medical pot – long on jargon, short on new info

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An update offered by the Florida Department of Health on the approaching availability of medical marijuana was rife with technical and legal language, but really broke no new ground other than to further emphasize the strictness of rules and regulations regarding the use of pot by patients with various medical problems.

The main thrust delivered by Christan Bax, director of the DOH Office of Compassionate Use, was that the transition to cannabis from contraband to a legitimate medical treatment is imminent.

“This is the beginning of an ongoing conversation between the department, physicians, patients and other stakeholders,” he said during an informational webinar hosted by the Department Tuesday afternoon. “There will be a great deal of specific information for patients and physicians, and we’re moving forward with this.

“You can expect further information from the department,” he said. “We realize this is a transition for everyone. We’re committed to getting this done correctly.

“The biggest department focus now is on communication,” he said. “We will do our absolute best to update you and to update you quickly over the summer. This will progress from a standstill which is what it is now to a fully functional thing … in a matter of months.”

Later this summer, it could be as early as July or as late as September, qualified patients in Florida will begin purchasing legal low-grade and medical (higher grade) marijuana. It can be obtained through orders from doctors who have registered with the state and taken a course to get a certification.

Dispelling some misinformation that the cannabis will be easily obtained and the procedure misused, Bax and department attorney Louise St. Laurent, discussed the restrictions put into place by the Department and the Florida Legislature to guard against abuse.

Everyone, from the six selected growers to doctors to patients must comply with strict rules of enforcement, he said. Each could face criminal charges if medical pot is obtained outside the law, and doctors can lose medical licenses if they do not comply with a very strict set of procedures.

Growers, processors and dispensers, all of whom could make millions, may be out of business if they fail to meet the requirements.

“Law enforcement is paying close attention to this industry,” Bax said. Anyone distributing medicinal pot, not from the six grow houses will be busted.

“These six businesses in the state of Florida are the only ones legally allowed to grow, process and dispense cannabis in Florida,” Bax said.

St. Laurent, the section manager for the emergency action unit at the state department of health, laid out some of the established rules.

For patients to be eligible, they must suffer from either a terminal disease or have conditions that result in seizures or muscle spasms.

Their eligibility for medicinal pot must be confirmed by a second, independent board-certified physician who specializes in that condition.

Patients that qualify also must have considered all other treatment options for terminal conditions currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Patients must be Florida residents, and they must have been under the care of the doctor for at least three months before the physician can order cannabis treatment. And no one is allowed to grow their own marijuana for self-treatment.

“There are strict statutory requirements,” she said. “There is little wiggle room here.”

Physicians also must follow tight regulations, or risk disciplinary action within the health department, which could range from suspension or revocation of a license to practice medicine to being charged with a misdemeanor criminal count.

St. Laurent echoed Bax’s sentiment that this is taking place and soon.

“The growing, processing and dispensing of medical marijuana,” she said, “is not going to happen in years, not months, but weeks.”

With a 38-year career in journalism behind him, Keith Morelli now writes about medical marijuana and the politics of pot in Florida. He began his career as a news editor with a weekly paper in Zephyrhills and his last gig was with The Tampa Tribune, which folded unceremoniously in May. While there, Morelli was general assignment reporter for the Metro section, writing a wide variety of pieces ranging from obituaries, to crime, to red tide, panthers and city government. In between those jobs, he spent nine years as a bureau chief for the Ocala Star-Banner. morellikj@gmail.com

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