By Tia Mitchell and Mary Ellen Klas
As he promised, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill on Monday that legalizes the use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Lou Gehrig's disease and cancer. He signed Senate Bill 1030, which approves the medication, and SB 1700, which protects the identities of the patients who use it.
"As a father and grandfather, you never want to see kids suffer," Scott said in a statement. "The approval of Charlotte's Web will ensure that children in Florida who suffer from seizures and other debilitating illnesses will have the medication needed to improve their quality of life."
The governor's office also announced today that he approved HB 697, which bans six new synthetic drugs.
There is still a larger medical marijuana debate going on this year in Florida. Voters will be asked in November to weigh in on Amendment 2, a much broader medical pot referendum that would legalize marijuana for a range of conditions.
Scott said that he personally opposes legalizing medical marijuana and the ballot initiative.
"I've watched drug use. ve watched alcoholism," he said during a campaign stop Monday. "I've seen how it affects families. I can't support that."
The Charlotte's Web bill legalizes strains of marijuana that are high in cannabidiol, or CBD, but low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that produces a high.
An estimated 125,000 children in Florida suffer from severe epilepsy and their families lobbied hard to persuade reluctant legislators to open the door to limited use. It also could be used by adults.
Authorized patients will be allowed access to the drug through oil or vapor form, but it may not be smoked.
If 60 percent of Florida voters approve Amendment 2, it would allow doctors to prescribe other forms of marijuana, including the kind that is smoked, to treat an even wider range of conditions.
The bill was amended at the ninth hour to stiffen licensing requirements so that only Florida nursery owners with businesses in operation for 30 continuous years will be allowed to grow "Charlotte's Web."
Florida physicians who have been authorized to order this strain of medical marijuana can start writing prescriptions Jan. 1. It will be sold through dispensaries licensed by the state Department of Health.
Most of the Legislature's Republican leadership oppose the rival constitutional ballot initiative, as does the Florida Sheriff's Association and the Florida Medical Association.
Many speculated that the GOP-controlled Legislature agreed to pass the low-THC proposal to squash voter interest in passing the amendment, which opponents believe will lead to the total legalization of smoking marijuana, misuse and abuse.
Some Democrats have argued that the Republican opposition to Amendment 2 is additionally based upon a fear that voters who support the initiative are more apt to support Democratic candidates.
United for Care, the main organization advocating in favor of Amendment 2, issued a statement praising Scott for signing SB 1030 but insisting more should be done.
"Today is an important day for our cause, but while tens of thousands of Floridians are one step closer to a healthier life, many times that number can draw nothing but hope from this move," said Ben Pollara, United for Care's campaign manager. "The only definitive and conclusive solution to removing the barriers faced by patients with debilitating conditions who can benefit from the use of medical cannabis is the approval of Amendment 2 on Nov. 4."
The campaign is supported by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who has spent about $4 million of his own fortune.
The "Vote No on 2" campaign formed recently to give a voice to the opposition. Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner and one of the wealthiest men in the world, donated $2.5 million to bankroll the anti-Amendment 2 effort.
Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report.
(c)2014 The Miami Herald