Medical Marijuana Debate Lights Up In Florida

Mar 22, 2013

It’s a busy afternoon at the NORML table at the University of Central Florida as students stop by to discuss their views on pot legalization and pick up buttons, literature and tote bags. The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML,  advocates complete legalization, including for recreational use, but currently the group is collecting petition signatures for a constitutional amendment to legalize only the medicinal use of the drug.  
 
 “Marijuana helps a lot of people with cancer….depression…a lot of bad things that marijuana can cure. Other drugs have side effects and all that and some people don’t wanna deal with it," said UCF student Juan Molina.

Recent polls show a growing number of Floridians agree with Molina. A recent survey conducted by the advocacy group People United for Medical Marijuana, or PFUMM, showed a majority of Floridians in favor of legalizing pot for medical use.

Momentum is building for a push to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida. Advocates say it provides relief from the symptoms of a number of serious ailments and call it a valid medical alternative to strong pharmaceutical painkillers.

Well-known Central Florida trial attorney John Morgan announced that he is throwing his support, and his considerable political influence, behind the cause. Morgan has personal reasons for his position. His father suffered from emphysema and cancer and, toward the end of his life, only marijuana provided relief.

A state senator is sponsoring a bill that would legalize cannabis for medicinal use and several groups are collecting signatures for a ballot measure on the issue.

“If someone rolls into your office in a wheelchair and says they’ve tried all those heavy prescription narcotic drugs and they don’t work for them and they’ve tried marijuana and it does work for them, it’s pretty hard to look those people in the eye and say ’I don’t want to help you," said Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Palm Beach).

 Clemens says there are thousands of Floridians in similar circumstances and that’s what prompted him to sponsor a medical marijuana bill. He says his proposal would limit marijuana use to people with very severe ailments such as cancer, HIV/AIDs, ALS and Parkinson’s Disease. It would require patients to have a valid prescription from a physician.

“We want doctors to be making the decisions. What we’re really working to restore here is the ability for doctors to talk to their patients about cannabis therapeutics and about the possibility of cannabis being used in their treatment," says David McKinney of the Florida Cannabis Action Network.

But marijuana legalization of any kind has historically been a tough sell in Florida and opponents say it would carry unintended negative consequences.

Todd Dixon of Orlando’s Center for Drug Free Living says he welcomes that discussion. The center takes no official position on the medical marijuana debate but Dixon says he wants to make sure all sides of the issue get a fair hearing.

“We just want people to be aware that, as with any drug, when you legalize it, you make it easier to access. You probably will then see increased use and with increased use of any drug, you’re also going to see an increase in the occurrence of addiction and abuse.”

Dixon says people need to realize the marijuana being sold for medicinal use in some states now is many times more potent than the grass some baby boomers might have sampled in college. He says it’s a strong drug with numerous side effects and not as nearly as benign as medical pot advocates claim, and, despite what proponents claim, Dixon maintains that the marijuana is  addictive. He points out that the medical community hasn’t reached a consensus about the therapeutic value of marijuana.

“I’m not a medical doctor but I think you would certainly find a lot of intelligent, experienced physicians that would argue the value of marijuana for medicinal purposes," he said.

Still, Sen. Clemens insists that cannabis has proven to be a safe and effective treatment for many patients and while he acknowledges his bill is not likely to pass the Senate this year, he believes many lawmakers in both parties privately agree with him on the issue and says they will eventually come around.

“As we get more of these patients to Tallahassee who are describing their symptoms and the pain they go have to go through, I think it’s becomes a lot harder for politicians to just chuckle that off. When a poll came out (last week) showing that 70 percent of Floridians are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, that’s a huge shift and politicians tend to follow shifts in public opinion.”

While Sen. Clemens works to pass a bill in the legislature, pro-medical marijuana groups are busy collecting signatures to place a ballot initiative directly before Florida voters. The advocates would need nearly 700,000 signatures to do that.