Jul 16, 2016

Chronically ill seniors, others await Florida Medical Marijuana vote (updated 8-11-16)

Practicing elder law and estate planning in Florida, I naturally meet a good number of seniors with serious physical ailments. Many who endure chronic pain are closely watching this November's election: Not just for the outcome of this highly unusual presidential contest, but for the fate of medical marijuana in our state.

This year's ballot includes Amendment 2, the "Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative." The constitutional amendment, which must be approved by 60% of voters, would expand the use of medical marijuana, giving 450,000 residents with certain debilitating illnesses access to full-strength cannabis. Proponents argue that the plant can help alleviate symptoms of certain illnesses more effectively than opioids and other classes of drugs. That's a viewpoint with which many of my clients seem to agree, as do most Floridians: A Quinnipiac poll conducted in May shows that 80% of Florida voters support the legalization of medical marijuana. Opponents of the amendment argue that medical legalization is a slippery slope that will lead to more widespread recreational use.

Currently, under Florida's Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, the use of medical marijuana is very limited. First, the patient must be a permanent Florida resident. The physician must be state-approved to prescribe and must have been treating the patient for at least 90 days. Low-THC (non-euphoric) cannabis may be prescribed for a medical condition that cause seizures or muscle spasms, provided all other treatment methods have been exhausted. Full-strength cannabis is permitted only for those with terminal conditions who are experiencing pain and/or nausea. Read more at the website of the Florida Department of Health Office of Compassionate Use.

Medical concerns and compassion for the ill will surely be the paramount factors determining the fate of Amendment 2. However, there is an interesting economic factor at play here, too. A study by Health Affairs has discovered that from 2010 to 2013, where medical marijuana was legalized, Medicare Part D costs declined, presumably because patients' use of more conventional painkillers decreased. Moreover, if the Drug Enforcement Agency decides to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule II drug, as is currently under consideration, insurance will pick up more of the costs for patients who rely on it. Update 8-11-16: Today the Drug Enforcement Agency announced that it will keep marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, stating, "The known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy."

Without a doubt, this election season has enormous ramifications for Florida, as well as for the nation. 

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