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Legal complication clouds medical marijuana rollout in Florida

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - Prospective medical marijuana growers in Florida are struggling to figure out a legal way to obtain starter cannabis plants under a new state law allowing for limited medical use, the bill's sponsor and other experts say.

Florida lawmakers failed to address how growers licensed by the state would acquire a non-euphoric strain of marijuana, such as "Charlotte's Web," named for a Colorado girl who used the drug to get relief from epileptic seizures.

Under current federal law, growers cannot transport the plants or seeds across state lines, complicating efforts to deliver the medication to patients as intended by Jan. 1.

“You have to smuggle them into Florida,” said Keith Stroup, legal counsel for NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.

State Representative Katie Edwards, who sponsored the legislation, said lawmakers hoped that University of Florida researchers would help import the plants. But the university rejected the idea as too complicated under federal law, which considers marijuana a drug with no medical purpose.

“These are significant barriers to helping these patients,” said Edwards, a south Florida Democrat.

Some states - including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Illinois - dealt with the problem through a staggered roll-out to protect businesses from legal risk, said Kurt Merschman, a Phoenix lawyer who represents several dispensaries.

Those states initially allowed patients to legally cultivate marijuana, turning a blind eye to how they got the plants, Merschman said. Later regulations required businesses to start their inventories with the plants donated by these patients.

Florida provided no such solution. The state's growers have much at risk, because only large nurseries that have been in operation for at least 30 years are eligible for the program. Some of those nurseries are worth millions of dollars.

“I do not personally intend to smuggle anything,” said Kerry Herndon, owner of Kerry’s Nursery in central Florida.

The state Department of Health, charged with drafting regulations, said in a statement it lacked the authority to address the issue. The new law is not related to a referendum up for vote in November that would more broadly legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Creative solutions under consideration include using a petri dish to transport marijuana plant cells, which are technically not plants, said Jeremy Bufford, founder of Medical Marijuana Tampa, which offers instruction on starting cannibis businesses.

Bufford planned to present the idea on Friday during a state workshop on the new medicinal marijuana rules.'

“I will give it to the growers for free,” he said.

(Editing by Letitia Stein and Leslie Adler)

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