Up In Smoke

37575678 - a prescription for medical marijuana

// by Stella Katsipoutis

Picking between Trump and Clinton isn’t the only controversial decision voters will make on November 8. Amendment 2, the effort to legalize the medical use of marijuana in Florida for individuals with debilitating diseases or conditions, has once again made the ballot for the 2016 election after failing to win the majority vote two years ago. And considering a recent Quinnipiac poll revealed that 80 percent of Floridians currently support medical marijuana, there’s a good chance that the amendment will garner the 60 percent “Yes” vote it needs to pass—and that the health care system in the Sunshine State will soon be overhauled.

Whether or not that would be a benefit for Jacksonville residents is still a camp-splitting debate among local medical professionals. While some cite research that suggests the possible health benefits of cannabis, others believe the validity of these studies leaves something to be desired.

“There was low-quality evidence in some trials that cannabinoids may be beneficial for chronic neuropathic and cancer pain, MS-related spasticity, chemo-related nausea and vomiting, weight gain in HIV, anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Timothy Sternberg, DMD, MD, medical director of Ancora Pain Recovery/Spine Care & Pain Management. “But there is also evidence showing structural abnormalities in the brain with regular marijuana use. There is an increased risk of serious cardiovascular disorders, and en-utero exposure produces negative effects on the fetal brain. Inhaling the smoke of an ignited or burnt substance—whether that be tobacco, marijuana or smog—also produces known deleterious effects on the lungs.”

Although the definitive health effects of marijuana are up in the air, medical marijuana is currently legal—but strictly limited—in Florida thanks to the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, a bill that was signed by Governor Rick Scott and went into effect on January 1, 2015. Under the statute, qualified physicians can order low-THC cannabis or medical cannabis for their patients under very specific conditions. Patients with cancer or an ailment that causes chronic seizures or severe, persistent muscle spasms can be eligible to receive low-THC cannabis, which has minimal amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol—the psychoactive ingredient that triggers the “high” associated with marijuana use. If a patient’s condition is deemed terminal by two physicians, then they can qualify to get medical cannabis, which can have significant THC levels.

“Ordering physicians must make certain medical determinations prior to ordering the product and in order to lawfully order the product,” says Mara Gambineri, communications director of the Florida Department of Health. “Qualified physicians can order, not prescribe the product. Currently a patient may fill his or her order at any dispensing organizations in the state.”

According to Dr. Sunil Joshi, MD, FACAAI, president of the Duval County Medical Society, the current restrictions placed on medical marijuana use would change in a few ways if Amendment 2 passes this election: “The [new] law would allow any licensed Florida physician to prescribe medical marijuana to individuals with debilitating conditions as determined by a licensed Florida physician. These conditions include cancer, epilepsy, ALS, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease, just to name a few,” he says.

That means it would be up to the physician—not the law—to determine for which conditions medical marijuana could be a beneficial treatment. The Department of Health would also be required to issue identification cards to patients and caregivers in order to keep tabs on marijuana production and distribution throughout the state.

“The amendment would [also] not require a physician to have a DEA registration, which is required to write [prescriptions for] other controlled medications, even cough medicine with codeine or low-dose Valium,” says Sternberg.

But that’s not all that would change: More state-regulated dispensaries would likely be popping up here in Jacksonville as well. “I am sure there will be many such locations in the area,” says Joshi. “Keep in mind that there is no local option to allow communities or counties to limit or restrict the location of these dispensaries, so you may see these shops next to a church, school or even your neighborhood.”

Big health care changes would be a sure thing for Jacksonville if voters give Amendment 2 the green light in November, but the timing of when it will all take effect is still yet to be determined: “It will take some time, many months, because the state legislature will need to come up with the appropriate rules and regulations regarding these dispensaries and where to put them,” says Joshi.

For now, it’s just a matter of sitting back and watching it all unfold on election day, November 8.