Joining the wave of successful efforts across the country, the Sunshine State is the latest to have finally embraced the legalization of medical marijuana. The new development comes after the election of Governor Ron DeSantis, who has assigned the task of changing the law to the Legislature, with the intention of appealing to a court decision in mid-March, arguing that banning the substance is in violation of a constitutional amendment.
The overturning of what has widely become known as the “smoking ban” marks a significant victory for the medical marijuana legalization movement. It comes two years after polls showed that 70% of Florida voters approved medical marijuana in 2017. It also marks a victory for Gov. DeSantis, who first made clear his intentions to dismiss state appeals and lower court decisions that were put in place by former Governor Rick Scott.
The history of medical marijuana in Florida
The question of legalizing medical marijuana in Florida first got the attention of the public at large in 1986, due to the efforts of Sarasota-resident Cathy Jordan and her husband, Bob Jordan. Given only five years to live after her diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Cathy visited sunny Bradenton Beach with some Myakka Gold, smoking it to see if it could help ease her pain.
Just as many other supporters of the medical marijuana attest, Cathy experienced near immediate relief. Upon sharing the new with her husband, the two became leaders of the movement for marijuana legalization. Twenty years later, Cathy, now living with ALS, has outlived her initial diagnosis, rallying supporters across the state who are celebrating this new move from Governor Ron DeSantis.
The Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Bill was introduced to the debate in 2013, the efforts led by Senator Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and former Representative Katie Edwards-Walpole of Plantation. Shortly following that introduction, however, the Jordans’ home in Parrish was raided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Drug intervention unit, with 23 marijuana plants used to cultivate strains to help Cathy seized, but no arrests made.
This move only served to gain more attention towards the movement, with Bob Jordan getting in contact with Orlando attorney Bob Morgan. Morgan first fought for a medical marijuana proposal on the ballot in 2014, his first efforts quashed by anti-drug groups and a lack of supporting signatures, but he eventually played a key role in bankrolling the constitutional amendment that paved the way for the 2017 legalization of marijuana.
What does this change in the law mean?
The ban on smokable medical marijuana was repealed by the Florida Legislature before being signed into law by Gov. DeSantis on Monday without a public signing. Taking effect immediately, the change in law allows not only for the prescription and use of legal marijuana, but the purchase of products like bongs and rolling papers. Meanwhile, non-terminal patients under 18 are required to secure a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician.
Since 2017, when 71% of voting Floridians were in favor of the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, access to the drug in the form of pills, oils, edibles, and vapes have been legalized. The 2017 bill, however, did not legalize smoking medical marijuana. This “smoking ban” was first challenged by circuit courts in July 2017, with Bob Morgan arguing that it violated the intentions of the 2016 constitutional amendment.
Gov. DeSantis signed the new legislation into effect with the aid of co-sponsors Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes and Democrat Linda Stewart. The new law enables patients to receive up to 2.5 ounces of whole flower cannabis every 35 days.
Supporters of the movement suggest that this allows for more treatment options, including for those who find smoking medical marijuana most effective for treating their symptoms and leaves the decisions of how to treat patients up to those patients and their doctors, rather than up to government officials.
As such, Florida joins the over 30 states that allow legal, smokable medical marijuana for a host of health conditions, including the following, according to Leafly:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic seizures
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic nonmalignant pain
- Terminal conditions
- Medical conditions of the same kind or class or comparable to those listed above
As with every prescription medicine, a doctor must certify a patient for use with an approved diagnosis before they are able to acquire their medical marijuana. Since legalization, cross-state analyses have shown that chronic pain is the most common reason for people enrolling into medical marijuana programs.
The effectiveness of cannabinoids as medicine
While research into marijuana, and other cannabis plants, as medicine has largely been limited, recent studies are starting to unveil both the potential benefits that they have to offer as well as the mechanisms by which the human body uses them.
The limitations on research into the medical benefits of marijuana are, in part, due to the fact that they are still considered a Schedule I drug on the federal level (the same level as heroin and ecstasy) by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, so researchers must acquire a special license to research it.
However, that doesn’t mean that the benefits are completely unknown, either. Marijuana contains hundreds of chemicals called cannabinoids, some of which are already produced in the human body, and all of which interact with our endocannabinoid system. These chemicals are involved in a wide range of processes in the body, managing our responses to pain, our movement, appetite, and memory. As such, current research suggests that cannabinoids can, according to WebMD:
- Reduce anxiety
- Slow and stop cancer cells from spreading
- Relieve pain by reducing inflammation
- Reduce nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy
- Relax tightened muscles, specifically in cases of multiple sclerosis
- Improve appetite and weight gain in cases of cancer and AIDs
Further research is ongoing into the effects of medical marijuana in relieving seizures for people with seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. The psychoactive component of marijuana, THC, has also shown some potential in stopping the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Inflammation in the brain is commonly noted as a precursor of a dementia diagnosis, so there is some evidence that the anti-inflammatory properties of THC and medical marijuana, as well their ability to slow the formation of amyloid plaques that kill brain cells, could offset, prevent, or slow the development of dementia disorders
Governor Rick Scott and opposition to medical marijuana legalization
Former Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, is widely attributed for the slow progress of medical marijuana legalization in the Sunshine State over the past two years. It was Gov. Scott who signed the 2017 bill the made smoking medical marijuana illegal. Scott then went on to appeal cases, similar to the circuit course case of July 2017, that were ruled favorably, opposing the bill directly until he left office.
This opposition, as well as the efforts of Bob Jordan and Bob Morgan, effectively made the medical marijuana movement one of the biggest talking points during the campaign season in which Gov. Ron DeSantis eventually won. At the same time that then-candidate for agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, made public her support of the movement and called out then-Gov. Scott’s continuous pushback, political contributions towards the movement increased as well.
Since Summer 2016, Florida’s cannabis corporations and executives contributed over $2.5 million to lawmakers and political parties, with medical marijuana lobbyists expanding their influence throughout the state. These contributions are thought to have played at least some small role in the eventual announcement of Gov. DeSantis support of legalization of medical marijuana.
In a press conference given on January of 2017, DeSantis made a pledge that if he didn’t pass bills to allow the legal smoking of marijuana, he would drop the appeals against the circuit court cases that had been made Governor Rick Scott, including a case that had originally been filed by Bob Morgan.
New horizons, new opposition
Although former Gov. Rick Scott’s appeals have been dismissed, that does not mean that legal medical marijuana is without its detractors in the state. House Speaker Jose Olivia is amongst some of those raising concerns that some of the support for the repeal of the ban is a cover for later access recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, who sponsored the 2019 House Bill to repeal that 2017 ban that he initially sponsored, argues in favor of another bill to regulate the smoking of marijuana.
As such, many expect that the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida is likely to be a key topic in the upcoming elections. While medical marijuana is now legal in thirty states, opposition against the recreational use of it is still strong. As such, only ten states allow the recreation sale of marijuana, and those are, according to Governing:
Meanwhile, a number of other states have moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, supported both by the legalization movement and in opposition to the prevalence of people imprisoned as a result of small drug charges.