On election night in November 2016, Florida voters sent a strong message to their state government and to the federal government that the time for legalizing marijuana for qualified patients was well past. Over 70 percent of the voters agreed that Amendment Two, which called for the expansion of medical marijuana should become law, and that patients who qualify should have legal access to medical marijuana. Amendment Two provides that patients who have a qualifying ailment, as certified by a local doctor who has been qualified by the State Office of Medical Marijuana Use, can fill their medical marijuana prescriptions at one of the authorized medical marijuana treatment centers. The list of qualifying ailments include cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, or other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class.
In order for a person in Florida to gain access to legal medical marijuana, he or she must seek treatment from a qualified physician to ascertain if that patient meets the eligibility requirements under the new law. The qualified physician then must, by law, input the patient’s information and the order for medical marijuana into the Medical Marijuana Use Registry. At that point the patient or the patient’s legal representative needs to apply for a compassionate use registry identification card. Once approved, the patient will then be able to contact one of the state licensed medical marijuana treatment centers to fill their medical marijuana prescription.
From the point of view of those who need access to medical marijuana to treat their medical conditions, the new system is obviously preferable to buying marijuana on the black market illegally. The new system provides legal protections for both the patient, doctors, growers and the retailers of the medicine. Unfortunately however, the passage of Amendment Two has not been a panacea and there are several major issues relating to access to medicine and the way the medicine can be ingested which are causing problems for patients who seek easy, legal access to medical marijuana.
First, the implementation of rules relating to the cultivation, dispensing and prescribing of the medicine were slow. Much of these delays can be attributed to the cumbersome task of essentially starting a huge new branch of the department of health. It was not an enviable task, from the point of view of state rulemakers, to have to create, essentially from scratch, a new legal system for patients, doctors, law enforcement, and regulators to have access to marijuana. After all, marijuana has been illegal under federal law since 1906, when the Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Local law has essentially tracked federal law in this regard until the current wave of legalization began several years ago. It will take several years, if not longer, for government officials, regulators and law enforcement to become used to these major changes in the way Florida looks at marijuana. For more than 100 years, marijuana has been viewed as a hard-core drug with no medical or societal benefits. Now, with the changes in attitude in our state, the government has been forced to change the way that they deal with marijuana.
Further, for people who need access to medical marijuana to treat their ailments, the new system is filled with challenges. Going to see a qualified doctor can be expensive and time consuming. Almost no insurance companies will pay for either the examinations needed to qualify for the medicine and none will pay for the costs of the medical marijuana, which can be very costly. Also, the state has limited the way in which a patient can legally ingest the medicine, which some experts say severely reduces the efficacy of the drug. The state has banned all smoking of marijuana and only allows patients to vape, or use edibles to take their medicine. Many employers also have strict anti-drug policies with regards to the workplace. It remains to be seen how an employee who has the legal right to use marijuana will be affected if their employers do not permit their employees to use the drug. Additionally, there are privacy concerns as well as all registered patients will be part of a statewide database that tracks every single legal user of marijuana in Florida.
The legalization of medical marijuana in Florida is a major step forward for patients who need the benefits that medical marijuana can provide. The voters forced the state to accept these changes and now all stakeholders, patients, their doctors, growers, retailers, law enforcement, and the state regulators must work together in order to ensure that the rules are refined and that access to medicine be safe, legal and easy.
Alexander Fox is a founding partner of LewisFox, an alcohol beverage and criminal law firm in Coral Gables. He practices criminal defense for individuals and companies. Contact him at Alex.Fox@LewisFoxLaw.com.