Despite last week's overwhelming vote to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, patients suffering from a list of chronic ailments won't be able to access the drug for months - and perhaps longer, depending on regulations expected to be crafted by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
- Amendment 2 could take months to implement
- Further debate in 2017 is likely
- Initial dispensing of full-strength marijuana could be pushed into 2018
While Amendment 2 could be implemented by the state's Department of Health without input from lawmakers, the initiative's controversial roots - a similar measure narrowly failed in 2014 after being criticized as a recreational marijuana wolf in sheep's clothing - virtually guarantee a robust debate during the 2017 legislative session, which begins in March.
At stake will be how medical marijuana can be prescribed and how long patients will have to wait before their prescriptions can be filled. Regulations governing the low-potency marijuana legalized by the legislature in 2015 require patients to obtain approval from two certified doctors, after which a 90-day waiting period takes effect.
"If we just take the idea that, 'Hey, it's a free market, let's just let the free market decide how we handle cannabis in Florida', then we will, I promise you, tomorrow turn into Colorado," Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) said during deliberations over low-potency marijuana legalization.
But extending the same regulations to the full-strength cannabis that will become available to chronically-ill patients would be an affront to the spirit of Amendment 2, the initiative's supporters contend.
"There's no reason to have (patients) wait 90 days, and there's no reason to have them see another doctor, necessarily," said Jeff Sharkey, who along with Taylor Patrick Biehl runs the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, a Tallahassee-based lobbying organization.
"For children, it may be a little bit different, but really, you want to get patients access to this as quickly as possible to find out if it really does help them."
Sharkey and Biehl are on the frontline of an effort to convince lawmakers that medical marijuana can be grown and dispensed securely without burdening patients with cost- and time-consuming regulations. A waiting period, they argue, would be particularly counterproductive in the case of terminally-ill patients who have been given just months to live.
"After having a doctor, a certified doctor, who has been through the coursework, who says 'You could really benefit from this', there's no reason to have them wait 90 days," Sharkey said.
However the regulations take shape, nothing will happen before July 1, when the Department of Health is due to begin implementation.
That effort could push the initial dispensing of full-strength marijuana into 2018, underscoring the difficulty in squaring a product of swift democracy with the molasses-like mechanisms of bureaucracy that are needed to carry it out.