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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Measures that would legalize full-strength medical marijuana for terminally ill patients received preliminary approval from House and Senate committees Tuesday, but not before one version underwent a major change that could have a dramatic impact on the state’s current cannabis law.

The proposals (HB 307, SB 460) would allow the use of medical marijuana for palliative care if patients have been given diagnoses of less than one year to live by two doctors. The measures are an expansion of the state’s “Right to Try” law, passed earlier this year, which allows terminally ill patients to have access to experimental drugs not approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The medical marijuana legislation would give five “dispensing organizations” — yet to be named — under Florida’s current non-euphoric cannabis law the ability to expand their businesses to include marijuana of any strength.

But in taking up the House version Tuesday, Democrats on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee forced a last-minute change that would do away with the current restrictions on which nurseries are eligible to participate.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott last year approved the current law to authorize a type of cannabis, commonly known as “Charlotte’s Web,” for patients with severe muscle spasms or cancer. Under the law, the Department of Health will grant licenses to five nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants at the time they applied to become one of the state’s dispensing organizations. The businesses will grow, process and dispense the marijuana low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD.

But an amendment sponsored Tuesday by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, to the bill for terminally ill patients would do away with the nursery restrictions and allow for up to 20 licenses.

Black farmers have complained that the restrictions on the current low-THC law had shut them out of competition for the highly sought-after licenses, in part because of discriminatory lending practices by the federal government decades ago.

Bracy, who is black, said that the current eligibility requirement “creates a competitive advantage” for certain nurseries and “negates free-market principles.”

The amendment took the bill’s sponsors, Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz and Plantation Democrat Katie Edwards, by surprise and created a flurry of sidebar discussions before the committee approved the measure with a 9-4 vote.

Gaetz later told reporters that he needed to evaluate the impact of Bracy’s amendment and wanted to make sure that it would not complicate the selection of the five licensees, already delayed because of legal challenges. Gaetz said health officials told him they would name the licensees as soon as this week.

The bill is “focused on helping dying people, folks who aren’t buying green bananas because they don’t have much time left on the planet earth,” Gaetz said. “Oftentimes at the end of life, we have Floridians who are so pumped full of morphine that they can’t even have a meaningful moment at the bedside to say goodbye to their loved ones.”

Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Health Policy Committee unanimously approved the original version of the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, who also played a major role in passage of the 2014 law.

Bradley said lawmakers may need to overhaul the current regulatory structure laid out in the low-THC law, which the Legislature approved after lobbying by parents of children with severe epilepsy.

“We have a decision to make. We’re at a fork in the road. Do we stick with this system that we set up two years ago, or do we go in a different direction? We’re going to have that discussion this session as the bill moves through the process,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told reporters after the meeting.

The current round of pot proposals come as backers of a constitutional amendment that narrowly failed to get voter approval last year appear likely to get a nearly identical proposal on the November 2016 ballot.

Bradley left open the possibility that the Legislature could consider authorizing medical marijuana for even more types of patients during the session that begins in January. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is backing a bill that would do that and revamp the dispensing-organization regulations.

“I don’t want to limit the discussion, because my colleagues don’t want to limit the discussion. Clearly, a lot of my colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, want to have a discussion about where we’re going as a state when it comes to medical marijuana. I want to be part of that discussion,” Bradley said.

Bradley said he, too, is intent on making sure that the low-THC products become available to parents of sick children as quickly as possible. Under the 2014 law, health officials were supposed to have selected the five dispensing organizations by Jan. 1.

“The fact that we told these families that we’re going to deliver this to them and then we haven’t is embarrassing. And it should be embarrassing for everybody associated with state government,” Bradley told the panel before the unanimous vote Tuesday afternoon.

The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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