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Florida House Marijuana Bill Draws Heated Reaction

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- After fiery exchanges with veterans and patient advocates who accused a legislative leader of relying on faulty research, members of a House committee on Tuesday pushed forward a proposal that would cap the level of euphoria-inducing THC in smokable medical marijuana.

The House plan would also give veterans free, state-issued medical marijuana identification cards, a sweetener that angered veterans who lashed out at the bill's sponsor, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, during an emotionally charged House Appropriations Committee meeting.

Rodrigues, a soft-spoken Estero Republican who serves as chairman of the House Health & Human Services Committee, was visibly shaken following a meeting that became so heated the House sergeant and his aides were summoned.

Rodrigues has shepherded House medical-marijuana legislation since the state first authorized non-euphoric cannabis for a limited number of patients in 2014.

The House plan to impose a THC cap came less than a month after legislators, at the insistence of Gov. Ron DeSantis, lifted Florida's ban on smokable cannabis. DeSantis threatened to drop the state's appeal of a court ruling that found the smoking ban ran afoul of a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing marijuana.

Rodrigues said he based his latest proposal (HB 7117) on studies that found marijuana with THC levels of 10 percent or less was beneficial and on other research that showed pot with higher levels of THC could lead to psychosis. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana that produces a euphoric effect.

"There's absolutely science that shows the product of medical cannabis that's 10 percent or less of THC is helpful for medical conditions. I'm a believer. I was an agnostic on that when we passed the constitutional amendment. I've studied the science, and I've been led to believe that absolutely there's a benefit from that," Rodrigues told the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee before a party-line vote on the bill.

But scientists who work for one of the state's licensed medical marijuana operators dispute the findings in the research cited by Rodrigues. The research includes a controversial study recently published in the medical journal The Lancet that linked smoking of high-THC marijuana --- 10 percent or higher --- with psychosis.

Ron Watson, director of governmental affairs for AltMed Florida, also known as MüV, said scientists at his medical marijuana firm say the study was flawed.

The variability of data in the study means that "no scientifically valid conclusion can be drawn," Watson told lawmakers.

Patients and caregivers also piled on.

An angry Adam Heidecke, who said he is a medical-marijuana caregiver for his father, called the 10 percent THC cap "a travesty," pointing out that levels of THC in plants can vary.

The Indian Shores man chided legislators for "debating about who's looking out for the patients and who is not."

"Terrible. Thumbs down. All-around. Boo," Heidecke said.

Jimmy Johnston, a veteran who is president of the North Florida chapter of Weed for Warriors Project, lashed out at the committee for linking the free ID cards for veterans, a savings of $75 per year, with the THC cap.

"A bill that was supposed to be about helping a community that is plagued with drug addiction and drug overdose … a bill that was supposed to be about helping a veteran community that is plagued (with) suicide is now being used as leverage by lawmakers to try and impose their will on the people," Johnston said.

The proposed 10 percent cap could cut in half the THC levels in plants now being grown by seven of the state's 14 licensed medical marijuana operators. Industry experts say the levels range between 15 and 24 percent THC.

Putting a cap on THC levels will force patients to spend more to get relief, some argued.

"If there's less THC in the medical cannabis product, then folks are going to need to smoke more of it," Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said. "The reality is that to overcome that, they're either going to buy more product that isn't flower … or they're going to forego all of this, and because it doesn't have the THC content that they need, they're going to go to the black market."

The committee also shot down an effort by Smith to add opiate addiction to the conditions that make patients eligible for marijuana treatment, despite pleas from veterans like Kelly Wahlers Parrott, a nurse who is vice president of the Tampa chapter of Weed for Warriors Project.

She said she used medical marijuana to wean herself off prescription painkillers she had become hooked on.

"I'm a better mom. I'm a better nurse. I'm a better human being because of it," she said.

Smith's amendment died on a voice vote.

Tensions flared throughout the discussion of the measure, culminating when Tyler King, who said he owns a CBD, or cannabidiol, shop in Gainesville, accused the committee of second-guessing patients' needs.

"It's an insult for all of you to sit here and act like you know what's better for us when you don't," an irate King said, adding that the two doctors on the panel had refused to make eye contact with members of the audience as they testified.

Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican who is a doctor, left the committee room as King spoke.

"Now he's walking out of the room because I called him out," King said, gesturing.

The outburst prompted committee Chairman Travis Cummings to call the sergeant, who, accompanied by aides, closed in on King and others.

"Let me tell you something. Don't get personal," scolded Cummings, R-Fleming Island. "Personal insults are not going to be tolerated, folks. I don't care what side you're on."

While the House measure is now ready for a full floor vote, its future may be doomed. More than midway through the legislative session, which ends May 3, it lacks a Senate version.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, "supports the policy," his spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email.

"However, he believes it would be challenging, but not impossible, to reopen issues related to medical marijuana at this late point in session," she wrote.

(©2019 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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