House members back limiting medical marijuana potency

Author: The News Service of Florida
Published: Updated:
Medical marijuana. (Credit: News Service of Florida)
Medical marijuana. (Credit: News Service of Florida)

Veterans, parents and medical cannabis operators are pushing back against a House plan that would limit how high Floridians can get when they smoke medical marijuana, saying proposed THC levels would drive patients to the black market.

The House plan would cap THC levels in smokable medical marijuana at 10 percent, a level the sponsor of the legislation maintains is based on science but which patients and advocates contend is too low. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana that produces a euphoric effect.

The House Health & Human Services Committee on Wednesday approved the measure (PCB HHS 19-02), with Chairman Ray Rodrigues saying the cap is grounded in studies that found high levels of the euphoria-inducing cannabinoid were not effective in treating pain. Other studies linked smoking high-THC marijuana with psychosis, Rodrigues said.

“We believe that there’s science that shows greater than 10 percent THC has been linked to harmful effects, so that’s why we’ve chosen the 10 percent limit. There’s also science out there that has shown that less than 10 percent is effective for medical purposes, and so we have used that as the delineation,” Rodrigues, R-Estero, said.

The committee vote came about three weeks after lawmakers — many of them, like Rodrigues, reluctantly — succumbed to pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis and overwhelmingly voted to repeal the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana. The Republican governor quickly signed the repeal into law, and several medical marijuana operators immediately began selling whole-flower cannabis to patients throughout the state for smoking.

The bill also includes a provision that would allow veterans to get free medical-marijuana patient identification cards, which currently cost patients and caregivers $75 each year.

Waiving the fee for vets, however, drew the wrath of some patients who accused Rodrigues of using veterans as “scapegoats” for the controversial THC levels included in the bill.

“This is going to harm us,” Tanya Bailey, a veteran with the group “Vets for Buds,” told the panel.

Bailey said she and others are already using whole-flower products with THC levels of between 8 and 24 percent for vaping. She fears vets will “end up in jail” for possession of illegal marijuana if the bill passes.

“We need our medicine. We don’t know what to do,” Bailey said. “I have to oppose any amendment that’s going to ride on our backs to lower to 10 percent.”

Patients hailed the repeal of the smoking ban, in part, because whole-flower cannabis is much cheaper than processed products, such as tinctures and oils.

But lowering the THC levels for smokable cannabis will drive up prices for patients, argued lobbyist Ron Watson, who represents one of the state’s medical marijuana operators, AltMed Florida, also known as MüV.

“Strangely enough, if you’re trying to discourage people from smoking, you’re encouraging them to smoke more because if they are approved for this route, it will take more for them to get the same results, and the price will go up,” Watson said.

Watson was among those who questioned the 10 percent THC level, which many complained was arbitrary. Most of the plants grown by the state’s medical marijuana operators range between 15 and 24 percent THC, according to industry insiders.

“We have a hard time believing that 9.9999 percent is medical and 10.0001 percent is not. We question the line in the sand at that number,” Watson said. “I do believe that if we pass this, it’s going to strengthen the black market and we’re trying to do everything we can to move away from that.”

But Rodrigues defended his plan, which was approved in a 12-5 vote.

“Our job as policy makers is to ensure that we are passing policy that is beneficial to our citizens and protects them from harm,” he said. “We rejected the low-THC caps of the 14 states that had set their caps so low that their residents aren’t getting the benefit of medical marijuana, but we set the cap high enough to reject the harms that we have seen from medical marijuana in multiple studies.”

Of the states with caps, New Jersey’s 10 percent THC limit is the highest, Rodrigues pointed out.

New Jersey, however, is in the process of eliminating its 10 percent cap “to allow for more effective treatment of the debilitating medical conditions covered under the state’s program,” according to a 2018 report.

The New Jersey officials are basing their decision on a Minnesota study, which found that “higher potency THC treatments provided effective treatment for a number of conditions,” the report said.

Relying on data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL, Rodrigues noted “roughly half the states that have a medical cannabis program have some kind of cap.”

Contradicting Rodrigues’ claims, however, an analyst with the NCSL told The News Service of Florida that, of the nearly three dozen states that have medical marijuana programs, only states with what are known as “CBD” or “low-THC” programs have caps on THC levels.

“To my knowledge, no state with a ‘comprehensive’ medical cannabis truly limits the THC sold in flower product. Louisiana has a clause of ‘as low THC as possible’ but doesn’t technically limit the amount of THC per product,” Karmen Hanson, NCSL’s behavioral health program director, said in an email.

With the legislative session at its halfway point Wednesday, it remains unclear whether the House proposal will gain traction in the Senate, which historically has taken a friendlier approach to medical marijuana.

Senate President Bill Galvano, speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, acknowledged that some members want to revisit a variety of marijuana-related issues, including the state’s “vertical integration” system, which requires operators to cultivate, process and dispense cannabis products.

“We have senators that are interested in perhaps looking at that (the 10 percent cap), but these issues are tied together and we’re at a point where it’s getting more and more difficult to justify reopening that whole issue and getting something done when we have one week left of substantive committees,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

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