According to the latest poll, public support for legalizing medical marijuana in Florida is high (pun intended). If the language for the ballot initiative gets past the Florida Supreme Court, voters will have their say in November 2014, when they’re asked to approve an amendment to state Constitution. But the initiative as a whole still has its fair share of critics, including many law enforcement officials.
Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, wrote an editorial opposing the amendment in the Sun-Sentinel, criticizing the ballot measure as essentially marijuana legalization.
“Authors of the amendment have included a truck-sized loophole in the definition of debilitating diseases, which changes the word disease into ‘condition.’ And what constitutes a valid ‘condition?’ ” Judd wrote. “Any condition where the ‘use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks’ of someone who claimed to be sick. This means people who alleged minor ailments such as muscle spasms, neck pain, back pain and even menstrual cramps have qualified for government-sanctioned pot-smoking.”
PolitiFact Florida wanted to check out what conditions patients could get medical marijuana licenses for under the proposed Florida law.
Let’s start by taking a look at the proposed medical marijuana amendment text. The ballot summary reads:
“Allows the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not authorize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”
So when a doctor prescribes cannabis, the Department of Health will issue the patient a license. Under Florida law, patients would not be able to grow their own plants.
Approved patients could purchase marijuana from registered, state-regulated centers. The amendment says how the centers will operate with regard to registration, record-keeping and safety would be determined by the department after passage.
Because medical marijuana would be legally dispensed, the program is government approved. However, saying it’s “government-sanctioned” isn’t quite right, because government officials are not encouraging marijuana use, as the definition of the word “sanction” would imply.
In the amendment text itself, which goes beyond the ballot summary, we get a list of qualifying diseases:
And here’s the part that Judd referred to: “or other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
That means it’s up to doctors to determine if patients could benefit from using medical marijuana.
Judd draws a comparison between what the proposed amendment in Florida would allow and what patients in other states have experienced.
Out of the 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have legalized medical marijuana, only California and Massachusetts have requirements similar to Florida’s proposal that allow for physician discretion when it comes to qualifying conditions. Most other states have a finite list of conditions, but say that the health department could add more or assign waivers. So Florida’s amendment would have a more relaxed standard than most states.
When we reached out to Judd, his spokesman told us that it’s clear medical marijuana access would not be limited to what he referred to as “debilitating” illnesses.
Other critics of medical marijuana have pointed out that any system, even in states with stricter rules, is not immune to loopholes and abuse. For example, an Arizona TV station reported that 90 percent of cardholders in the state claimed chronic pain. However, the biggest age group claiming chronic pain was 18- to 30-year-olds, even though chronic pain is more common in older adults.
So we can understand why Judd’s editorial speculates about the possibility that some healthy individuals will try to acquire licenses.
So we know Florida has a flexible definition of which conditions qualify a patient for medical marijuana, which supports Judd’s point. But should the conditions he lists really be considered “minor ailments”?
University of California, San Francisco doctor Donald Abrams has studied the effects of cannabis on cancer and HIV patients. Based on his experience treating and studying chronic illnesses, he said the conditions Judd listed are often serious.
“Some of these things that your sheriff considers to be trivial require people to take opiates,” Abrams said, adding that these medications (such as morphine) are less safe than marijuana.
Several experts pointed out that muscle spasms are a common symptom of multiple sclerosis, a chronic inflammatory disease that would already be greenlighted for medical marijuana treatment if the Florida amendment passes.
Neck pain, back pain and menstrual cramps are also frequently treated with prescription pain medication.
Today chronic pain affects about 100 million U.S. adults, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
Oh, and as for menstrual cramps, ladies? Abrams said Queen Victoria opted for a little marijuana therapy to relieve her pain in the 19th century.
So yes, Judd is right that someone with one of these ailments would be eligible for a medical marijuana license at a physician’s discretion. But it’s a misleading generalization to describe these conditions as “minor.”
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