By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 5 (Reuters) - Acknowledging a major shift in societal attitudes toward marijuana, a key committee of the Florida legislature voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve medical use of a "non-euphoric" marijuana extract that has shown promising results in treating seizures.
"We have evidence of benefits," Republican state Representative Cary Pigman, an emergency room physician, said of the substance known as cannabidiol, or CBD. "We have no evidence of harm."
The Florida House Criminal Justice Committee voted 11-1 in favor of approving a proposal to allow medical use of CBD. Before the vote, Pigman referred to parents in the audience who had told of their children having epileptic seizures that steadily destroyed brain cells.
"Each of these children is moving closer to their deaths, at a lightning-fast rate, compared to the rest of us," he said.
The bill is not related to a constitutional amendment put on next November's Florida ballot by a public petition campaign that would allow doctors to prescribe regular marijuana for patients with severe disabilities.
The pending proposal (HB 843) allows tightly controlled use of a specially cultivated strain high in CBD and low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound that gets smokers high.
The Georgia House recently voted 171-4 for a similar bill and another CBD proposal is pending in Alabama. The Florida bill has heavyweight sponsorship by criminal justice committee chairman Matt Gaetz, a conservative opponent of the medical marijuana ballot, and Representative Katie Edwards, a Democrat from a liberal Fort Lauderdale district who supports medical prescription of the herb.
"We've been fooled into thinking this is something unsafe for so many years and that's stifled good research," Edwards said after the committee meeting.
Gaetz emphasized that under his and Edwards' bill, there would be significant safeguards against mixing medical and recreational pot. The drug could not be in smoking form, a user must not be in possession of any illegal drug, use of the drug would have to be approved by a physician, and the drug itself would have to be sufficiently low in THC and high in CBD.
Gaetz also said the bill provides a start-up $1 million in "research bait" for pharmaceutical companies to come to Florida and refine the substance.
"You have a plant I understand has a negative stigma to it because of the side effects of recreational use, but the fact is it has medical value," said Representative Dane Eagle, a Republican who said he had opposed marijuana legalization until now.
The bill next goes to the House Appropriations Committee and the full Judiciary Committee. A companion Senate bill (SB 1030) has not yet been heard in that chamber.
Holley Moseley, cofounder of Caring 4 Florida and mother of an 11-year-old girl with epilepsy, thanked the committee for advancing the legislation, which she said would "mean a better life for our daughter and our family." (Editing by David Adams and Peter Galloway)