Florida will start allowing cancer and epilepsy patients to use a strain of low-potency marijuana next year under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott, who has been a firm opponent of medical marijuana and has tried to mandate drug testing of state workers, said he signed the bill because as a "father and grandfather, you never want to see kids suffer."
The legislation signed by Scott passed with strong support in the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature after lawmakers heard stories of children suffering from seizures who could be helped by the strain known as Charlotte's Web. It was a significant turnaround since the Legislature had refused in the past to consider bills dealing with medical marijuana.
"The approval of Charlotte's Web will ensure that children in Florida who suffer from seizures and other debilitating illnesses will have the medication needed to improve their quality of life," Scott said in a statement.
One of those children is Jami Talbot's 5-year-old son, Tyler (pictured below), who is at Wolfson Children's Hospital, being treated for epilepsy. Talbot said medical marijuana is the only thing that has kept Tyler's seizures at bay, and she called the new law "life changing."
“It’s been long overdue," Talbot said. "This is going to help so many children, not just Tyler. Its going to help kids with cancer, kids with epilepsy. It’s going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to see what it does for him.”
The new law makes it legal to dispense to certain patients strains of marijuana with low amounts of THC and high amounts of cannabidiol, or CBD, which is used to treat seizures.
Tyler was diagnosed with epilepsy last year. He's had two surgeries and has been cycled through seven different high-powered medications. On Monday, he was in an uncomfortably familiar place — back in the hospital after a series of seizures.
"We don’t know if it will spike back up, so we don’t know what will happen," Talbot said. "It’s very nerve-wracking. I’m scared every day that we’re going to have the big one, and it’s going to land us in the hospital for another six, seven, eight weeks.”
Physicians will be allowed to start dispensing the marijuana strain in January. Doctors and those seeking to receive the medical marijuana will be registered into a state-run "compassionate use registry." Physicians can be charged with a crime if they dispense the drug to someone who is not an eligible patient.
Patients would not smoke the Charlotte's Web strain of marijuana. It's processed into an extract that's administered like an oil that's dropped on the tongue.
“It’s very life changing," Talbot said. "It’s going to be wonderful for (Tyler). He’s going to get to play and go outside, and I won’t have to worry about him falling and hitting his head or riding his bike. Taking him to the pool is going to be amazing.”
In January, the local group Drug Free Duval told Channel 4 it doesn't oppose medical marijuana but had concerns about language in the Charlotte's Web law that could potentially lead to abuse.
“We see the vast majority of people that became licensees, that are allowed to have medical marijuana, they're not folks who have debilitating diseases, and we're worried about that,” Drug Free Duval Executive Director Susan Pitman said in January.
With an estimated 125,000 children in Florida suffering from severe epilepsy, the limited door for using medical marijuana is something Tyler's doctor will be monitoring in the weeks and months ahead.
"He said that we’d talk about it further when we came into the clinic in a few weeks and see how we could integrate this," Talbot said.
Scott's decision to sign the bill comes while a campaign is underway to pass a state constitutional amendment that would allow medical marijuana to anyone with a "debilitating medical condition," including cancer, glaucoma, Parkinson's disease or any condition in which a physician believes the drug would outweigh any potential health risks.
Opponents contend that the wording of Amendment 2 would allow virtually anyone to get access to marijuana, although supporters say that isn't true. Scott and other Republicans are opposed to the measure.
But Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the group supporting the amendment, praised Scott for signing the Charlotte's Web bill into law.
"He is joining the ranks of the millions of Floridians who agree on one indisputable fact: marijuana is medicine," Pollara said in a statement.