Medical marijuana in Florida: Compassion a good bet on ballot

April 5, 2016

Medical marijuana in Florida: Compassion a good bet on ballot

March 23, 2016 – Orlando Sentinel

Two years ago, the medical marijuana constitutional amendment was on the ballot. Even though a majority of Florida voters supported it — 58 percent — it failed to meet the 60 percent threshold needed for passage.

There was a strong and well-financed opposition that relied on doomsday scenarios and scare tactics. Others who opposed the measure did so by saying the change should be done by the Legislature in statute, not by citizens in the Florida Constitution.

During that time the Legislature — opposed to full-fledged decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes — passed a very limited form of non-euphoric marijuana use for children with epilepsy or chronic seizures.

The legislation passed in the spring of 2014 but has been delayed by state agency rule-making and legal challenges by nurseries that want to grow the plants and dispense the medical marijuana. The bill limited the number of dispensing organizations of the low-THC cannabis to five.

Left out were the tens of thousands of Floridians who could benefit from marijuana to treat their life-threatening illnesses, ease their pain or nausea, or increase their appetite.

Supporters of medical marijuana would have to start all over if they wanted to put it back on the ballot. That meant drafting ballot language, passing Florida Supreme Court review and collecting hundreds of thousands of petition signatures. All this takes time and money. Meanwhile, family and friends were risking incarceration for illegally purchasing marijuana on the street for their loved ones. Those suffering with pain or debilitating illnesses were also illegally purchasing it for themselves. Think of the risks. If caught they could be arrested, incur legal expenses, or worse, jail. What about the characters they were purchasing it from? Could they be trusted? Was it safe?

The group behind the amendment — United for Care — shared some of those same concerns and jumped right back in to provide a safer, regulated system of legally purchasing marijuana for legitimate medical reasons. Orlando attorney John Morgan is the force behind United for Care — and motivated by a brother in need. Morgan and his group again jumped all the hoops and, with 692,981 verified signatures, medical marijuana is heading back to the ballot this fall. It even has the same place on the ballot — Amendment 2.

What’s different this time? How has the landscape changed? And what are the chances it will attain the 60 percent of the vote needed for passage? One important change is the actual ballot language. To address concerns that the original amendment was overly broad — allowing opponents to falsely claim it opened it up to recreational users — the language was tightened up. According to Ben Pollara of United for Care, Amendment 2 has clearer definitions of eligible medical conditions — cancer, AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma and several others. It also requires parental consent and verification for minors, addressing another red herring of opponents. Another change is the timing of the ballot. The first attempt was during a nonpresidential election year when voter turnout is generally lower. This year, with a competitive battle for the presidency, turnout should be robust. Keep in mind, the ballot proposal failed by only two percentage points — receiving 58 percent of the vote when 60 percent was needed.

Another difference? The Legislature might be shifting on the issue. There was some surprising news out of the just concluded legislative session. Thanks to bipartisan efforts, legislation passed that would allow dying patients to be prescribed full-strength medical marijuana. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill into law, it would greatly help many terminally ill Floridians.

While a positive development, the bill is too narrow. There would still be thousands of others hoping for relief and compassion for their suffering. The passage of Amendment 2 would help them. It’s not a risky proposition, as 23 states have already legalized marijuana for medical conditions.

The chance of passage this year is promising. According to a recent PPP poll, 65 percent of Florida voters would support the medical marijuana initiative while only 28 percent are opposed. Support crosses party lines. Democrats support the measure 75 percent to 18 percent, independents 70-20 and Republicans 53-40.

Some local governments are also weighing in on marijuana-related issues. The Volusia County Council — by unanimous vote — gave law-enforcement officers discretion to impose a fine rather than arrest individuals possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana.

With strong public support, this just might be the year for compassionate help to arrive.

Paula Dockery served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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