TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Lobbyist Ron Watson has worked for doctors and dentists for the past two decades. But starting Monday, he went on a mission.
Watson left the Florida Dental Association and started a one-man shop with the association as his sole client so that he could advocate for "Charlotte's Web," a strain of medical marijuana that backers believe can dramatically reduce seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy.
His crusade is also a way for Watson to channel grief over the death of his 8-year-old son Dylan two years ago.
The veteran lobbyist said he was moved to act after watching the emotional testimony of parents pleading with lawmakers to approve the non-euphoric, oil-based marijuana extract. Their despair reminded him of the year-and-a-half long battle his son waged before succumbing to leukemia on March 19, 2012.
"I understand what a desperate parent is all about. I understand what it is to look at a child suffering," Watson told The News Service of Florida recently. "I truly feel like I'm on a mission. As a father that saw suffering and desperation, as a Republican who's frustrated with my party on this issue, and as a lobbyist who formerly represented doctors, I feel compelled."
GOP legislators are divided about Charlotte's Web. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is supporting the proposal (SB 1030 and HB 843) and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, brought the issue to the forefront on behalf of a Panhandle couple seeking legalization of the extract for their daughter.
But some House Republicans are skeptical of approving legislation that would make any form of marijuana legal, especially in an election year when voters will get to decide whether doctors can write prescriptions for marijuana. GOP leaders have lined up against a proposed medical-marijuana constitutional amendment backed by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, a Democratic fundraiser who is also former Gov. Charlie Crist's boss. Crist is trying to get his old job back as a Democrat.
Watson said his fellow Republicans "are on the wrong side of history" in their opposition to medical marijuana. He believes his personal experience combined with his stints as a lobbyist for the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association and, most recently, the dentists, make him uniquely suited to persuade leery lawmakers to sign off on Charlotte's Web.
"I think I might have the ear of some legislators that might not hear someone else only because of who I used to represent. … I believe that I can help them get on the right side and that's what I want to do," said Watson, who is not getting paid for his advocacy.
Getting the Charlotte's Web measure to Gov. Rick Scott's desk is "the first step" in what Watson said is a 14-month journey to "educate, organize and, God, willing, properly implement" the proposed constitutional amendment dealing with medical marijuana.
"My son had a 14-month battle. It was quite a journey. I have dedicated myself to a 14-month battle. It starts now. And it starts with the limited version of this bill. But it is going to have an immediate effect for these families. And if it's nothing more than hope at first, hope is a powerful emotion," Watson said. "I think starting out with something like this that does not get you high, that is not smoked, that immediately gives relief to desperate children, how dare us not?"
It's not the first time Watson's son Dylan, who was diagnosed with autism, inspired him to take action inside the Capitol. Six years ago, Watson helped push through a measure that required insurance companies to provide coverage for autism.
Watson points out with pride that the autism measure was the last bill approved by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as House speaker in 2008.
"In a strange sort of way, I felt God put me in a special position to help with the autism. And I felt that God gave me an autistic child to help other autistic children. I feel the same way about this," Watson said.
Watson hands out black rubber wrist bands imprinted with his son's name and "Be awesome, cool and funny." Those were the words Watson found on the white board in his son's hospital room shortly before he died.
"This is 12 months after being diagnosed… and my kid's goal for the day was to be awesome, cool and funny. My goal for every day is to be awesome, cool and funny. And I want to carry that to this message," he said.
"The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report."
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