For more than 20 years, Dr. David Berger hoped to see the day when he could legally prescribe medical cannabis to those who needed it.
When products finally became available this summer following Florida’s 2014 passing of the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, the long-time holistic pediatrician wasted no time obtaining the state’s required certification for prescribing cannabis.
Last month, that decades-long wait came to an end when Berger officially opened Tampa's first Family Medical Cannabis Clinic out of his Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care facility.
In just six weeks, Berger has already welcomed 75 patients in search of medical cannabis treatment.
“[Medical cannabis] is just something I’ve always felt strongly about,” said Berger, who opened Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care 11 years ago. “For me, it’s just another tool to help people."
This has always been the bottom line for Berger, who started using holistic therapies during his pediatric residency at Tampa General Hospital. As far as he knows, there are no other pediatricians – at least in the Tampa Bay area – certified to prescribe medical cannabis.
He understands that cannabis as medicine for children is a sensitive issue, of course, but as far as he’s concerned, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“With everything we know about cannabis, certainly compared to most of the medications out there…the risk aspect of it is so low,” said Berger. “The way I look at it is even if there's a questionable benefit to it, if the risk is low, then it's worth it.”
While Berger acknowledges that it’s “probably easier” to prescribe medical cannabis to adults because “they can tell you how [they’re feeling], which is more difficult for a young child,” it’s all about a physician's comfort level with the subject.
“For me, as somebody who has been doing holistic and integrative medicine for two decades now, it’s not that big of a stretch,” said Berger.
Due to current regulations in Florida, however, the number of people Berger is actually able to help right now (at least with medical cannabis) is a lot lower than you might expect.
As it stands in the state of Florida, certified physicians like Berger can only prescribe varying doses of cannabis to patients suffering from one of a handful of medical diagnoses. For cancer patients or those with conditions that produce symptoms of seizures or persistent muscle spasms, he can prescribe only low-THC medical cannabis. For those with terminal medical conditions, he can prescribe full-strength THC-containing medical cannabis.
Pair this with the fact that those seeking medical cannabis must be active patients of a certified physician for at least three months (along with the fact that children require a secondary recommendation) and the range of obstacles can seem daunting for all involved.
It’s meant Berger has only been able to enter two patients into the Compassionate Use Registry so far.
“It’s very sad to tell someone who needs something tomorrow that they have to wait three months,” said Berger.
“In fact, one of the [terminal] patients just passed away since the initial consultation; not that [cannabis] would've cured the person but it certainly could've made their last few weeks more manageable.”
While residents of Florida will vote on expanding the pool of approved diagnoses eligible to receive medical cannabis in this November’s US election, the three-month rule that causes Berger the most grief shows no indication of changing.
“There's nothing in the amendment as written that says it will wipe out that three-month rule…at this point we’re working under the assumption that the rules put in place by the legislators over the last two years will be the backbone of this new legislation,” said Berger.
“That’s been a challenge for me because, as a physician, people come to me because they want help.”
He said that while public reaction to the clinic opening has been “wonderful,” there hasn’t exactly been a “floodgate” of neurologists sending over patients.
“We’re doing more reaching out, as much as we can, to the patients to try and connect with them that way and let them know that we’re here,” said Berger. “If there's something I can do to help people, I want to do it.”
Banner image: Tampa's first Family Medical Cannabis Clinic is located in the the Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care facility.