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Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act hearing proves contentious

Monday’s Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act hearing proved emotional and contentious, as prospective patients, merchants, and growers issued a litany of complaints regarding holes in the statute, including the claims from medical professionals and parents that the focus of discussion was tilted to the business end and not to providing relief to patients.

The greatest fireworks during Monday’s hearing, perhaps, were when Heather Zabinofsky, a cannabis grower, had words with Patricia Nelson, director of the Office of Compassionate Use, over the application process and other issues. The hearing was held in Tallahassee at the Department of Health.

Zabinofsky, who has described herself as a “master grower,” took issue with many aspects of the process, including the “certified financials” part, which she claimed imposed an onerous burden on applicants — one that could prove “fatal” to applicants’ hopes.

“We can’t do ‘certified,’ now what are we going to do?” she said, adding that there’s no reason for a nursery to have “certified financials.”

Nelson retorted that there are ways, including “variance of waiver” proposals, for applicants to circumvent that requirement.

“If for some reason an applicant or an individual has problems,” Nelson said, that person could apply for a variance of waiver.

Zabinofsky took issue with other aspects of the law, including having a “medical director,” arguing that it should be a suggestion and not a requirement.

The grower then moved the discussion to “sharing product,” talking of strains that “aren’t any good any more,” arguing that the “influx of new strains” is needed for the “medicinal pool”.

Nelson frustrated Zabinofsky by telling her the acquisition of new strains is not allowed for in the statute, and therefore is the grower’s problem.

“I don’t care where you get it or how you get it,” Nelson said, “unless you want to tell me more.”

The discussion then went to the “bond,” which Zabinofsky described as “absurd”.

“A performance bond is intended to cover lack of performance,” Nelson said.

Bond companies need to know what they are paying for before they cover a bond, Nelson said, adding that the marijuana initiative differs from roads or other less controversial expenditures.

Zabinofsky claimed her surety company only covers “revocation” and “renewal,” adding that if “I fail to renew, it makes it sound like I did something wrong here.”

“It’s all very confusing regarding these proposed penalties,” she said.

The grower also took issue with the word “retail,” saying that the “flavor of the word retail” describes sale to a consumer, claiming that the word precludes “discount,” “wholesale,” or whatever pricing structure the vendor sees fit.

She also took issue with the scorecard, saying that she’d be “screwing” herself if she made the wrong decision on what to include. Nelson described it as a holistic evaluation, intended to let applicants make their own decisions regarding what to include in the application process and how to include it.

Regarding a “tie,” Zabinofsky proposed their be an interview process as a tiebreaker, saying it would remove subjectivity.

Nelson contended that an interview would also be subjective, and that the scoring likely would prevent a tie.

The two also sparred about other issues, including quality control measures related to mold and other issues that could inhibit the quality of the product.

Parents also brought forth concerns.

Ngoc Minh Le, a pediatric epilepsy specialist, levied criticisms of the California program, saying that it’s not regulated.

“My intention here is to get the focus back on the children,” Le said, commenting that the discussion had moved toward the business aspects of the legislation rather than the healing.

“As each day passes by, more and more children are dying”, he said, adding that “families are desperate. They know this compound is available. We know it’s relatively safe.”

Le worries that some families will resort to “illegal actions” to get the product, and told  stories of families that are “split” so that they can have access to the medicine.

Le contended there should be a mechanism so that strains can be switched out for increased efficacy, as it relates to the CBD/THC balance, and “microcannabinoids.” He points to the GW Pharmaceuticals product Sativex as an example of a higher THC product with medical efficacy.

“CBD is a reasonable option,” said Le, comparing its efficacy to surgery without being invasive.

“We do want to keep the focus on the patients. We want to help these children out,” he said, again castigating the focus on the business end.

Discussion later turned to definitions of terms such as “qualified patient” and the risks inherent in dispensing to patients, as well as terms such as “employee” and “derivative product,” as still more vendors grappled with a questionnaire process they view as opaque.

“There’s no negative scoring for not answering one of these” questions on the application questionnaire, Nelson said, comparing the process to scoring on the SAT.

Anthony Ardizzone of Ed Miller and Son, asked questions about the demarcation between regional and statewide distribution.

“The market will drive where you put your outlets,” Nelson said.

Kimberly Muszynski came to advocate for her daughter and for “many other special needs families” out there whose children were “too fragile to travel … so that the audience could see these children’s faces”.

“This is about saving children’s lives. Not about business. Not about making money,” Muszynski said, adding that her sole focus is improving her daughter’s quality of life so she  can walk, talk, and thrive.

“The focus has to be brought back to saving lives. Every day these children have a seizure, it is life-threatening,” she said, describing the full-time job of taking care of her daughter, who requires supplemental oxygen.

“The paramedics know me. They know my garage code,” she said.

“What would you do for your child? You would do anything,” she said, telling the story of her 3-year-old daughter born with a congenital condition of severe epilepsy and life-threatening seizures from the time she was 3 months old.

Battling tears, Muszynski described the futility of medical remedies. “Not one doctor has been able to control her seizures. Not one medication has been able to make her seizures stop,” she said.

With cannabis, Muszynski said her daughter has a chance to “overcome the impossible” and advance beyond her current developmental level (“6 to 9 months”). Currently, she is non-verbal.

“I need to make this work for Florida”, Muszynski said, adding that moving to Colorado, where these “miracle medicine” treatments are tested and work, is “not an option.”

“It’s the quality of life that she so deserves and that every child out there deserves,” the Palm Beach County resident added, urging Tallahassee to find a way to help save her daughter’s life.

John Dial, a Stuart yacht broker associated with a consortium he called “Florida Organic Products,” then spoke of his son, recently diagnosed with tremors, saying that what once was a business decision for him has become personal. He asked about the $60,000 fee “just to look under the fence” and confirmed that a fee would have to be paid for each of the regions applied for. There are five regions in Florida.

Dial brought up a point that many nurseries are in “financial trouble”; Nelson countered that “might be a problem in the application process.”

“This is a very expensive proposition. We’re talking 2 to 3 million dollars. That’s not chump change,” Dial said, adding that outside financial resources can be necessary for the necessary capital to launch and create a sustainable operation.

“The applicant is the nursery and the dispensing organization is the nursery,” Nelson said, pointing a way forward for investors to perhaps buy into struggling long-standing nurseries, fusing their capital with these nurseries that have been in existence for 30 years or more.

Dennis Deckerhoff talked about his 19-year-old son who’s had seizures since he was 6 months old.

“I wish my son could be here making this speech, but he can’t talk now,” Deckerfoff said. He contended the brain damage and brain surgery his son has experienced could have been avoided if he’d had access to the medicine.

His son has been on 12 to 15 medicines at a time, with “side effects, too many to mention.”

“We want to stop kids from having to go through 19 years of seizures,” all because they are deprived of access to a “dadgum plant,” he said.

“This ain’t rocket science, people,” Deckerhoff said.

Robert Tornello, a grower, discussed the low-THC requirement in the current statute, and questioned why there wasn’t more latitude in Florida.

“Out there, they can build a house with mud blocks,” he said, adding that in Florida, we are “building a house with glass blocks” and that the statute needs to be expanded beyond the “absolute minimum threshold” provided by Charlotte’s Web to encompass therapeutic needs and new knowledge that comes to light.

“What works in Colorado at that elevation and that latitude may work in Florida in the winter time” but that Florida’s different climate may lead to unforeseen consequences related to the crop itself.

“We’re so used to talking about cannabis as an everyday thing that we forget” how hard it was for parents to get medical cannabis onto the table, Nelson said, saying that it’s far from a given that higher THC strains will be permissible, and certainly not in the short term.

“Right now, we have the opportunity to take this first step,” Nelson said, getting more information on side effects, efficacy, and interactions.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at AG@FloridaPolitics.com

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