State News
4:53 pm
Fri November 16, 2012

Should Medical Marijuana Be Legal In Florida? Petition Says Yes

Florida Cannabis Action Network Executive Director  Jodi James holds a canister that the federal government uses to ship marijuana cigarettes to Irvin Rosenfeld.
Florida Cannabis Action Network Executive Director Jodi James holds a canister that the federal government uses to ship marijuana cigarettes to Irvin Rosenfeld.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU-FM

It’s been tried before in Florida and failed. But this week, an advocacy group is working on a new way to make medical marijuana legal in the state. The group wants to get the drug reclassified as a less dangerous substance, a path they’re hoping will lead to doctors being able to prescribe it in Florida.

Days after Colorado and Washington voters approved the legalization of small amounts of recreational marijuana, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi got a petition asking her to decriminalize marijuana, also known as cannabis, for medical use here. Bondi spokesman John Lucas says, the attorney general hasn’t indicated what she’ll decide.

“We’re still reviewing the document and have not yet responded to the petition," he said.

Florida law gives Bondi 30 days to respond to the request, filed by the Florida Cannabis Action Network. It’s the same group that has supported failed efforts in the past to put medical marijuana on the ballot. But CAN Executive Director Jodi James said the group’s new tactic has never been tried before.

“This is the right way to do it, by calling on the Attorney General to act," she said. "This is what the Legislature has said that they want to happen first, and as soon as she acts, then I feel confident that the Legislature will protect patients who are sick and dying in Florida.”

The advocates are asking Bondi to change the cannabis classification to something below Schedule I, the category reserved for the most dangerous drugs, including meth and heroin. James said, the federal definition of Schedule I is something that has no medical purpose and a high potential for abuse, and that doesn’t describe cannabis.

Just ask Fort Lauderdale financial adviser Irvin Rosenfeld.

“I’ve been using it in Florida for 27 years now," he said.

He’s one of just four people in the U.S. participating in an experimental federal program that started in the early '80s. He said, the National Institute on Drug Addiction grows marijuana plants at the University of Mississippi.

“The whole plant is shipped to Raleigh, N.C., where it’s broken down, moisture’s taken out, and it’s put in cigarette form by a cigarette machine, and they put 300 cigarettes in a tin can, which you saw, and that’s how I receive it from the federal government every 25 days," he said. 

The federal program was dissolved in 1992, but Rosenfeld and other participants were allowed to continue. He qualified because of a rare bone tumor disorder. At nearly 60 years old, he said, smoking marijuana is the only thing his doctor credits for his long remission.

Doctors prescribe it for everything from glaucoma to terminal cancer. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have legalized its medicinal use. But the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute director, Dr. Kevin Sabet, said, legalization advocates are wrong. 

“They must be smoking something," he said. "The scientific consensus is undisputable.”

Sabet is a former senior adviser in the Obama administration drug policy office. He says, there’s no basis for Bondi to remove marijuana from the Schedule I list.

“That definition simply means that the whole, raw marijuana plant is not medical and it has the potential for abuse. And that is a technical criteria that is true," he said.

He said, the component ingredients of cannabis do have medicinal value, but they’re already available in pill form. And, he said, a cannabis mouth spray is going through approval testing by the FDA.

But what is the harm in allowing doctors to prescribe and monitor smoked marijuana?  Sabet said, states like California show, that opens the door to widespread use and abuse. 

“Do medical marijuana the right way, which would be non-smoked components delivered in a pharmacy. Doctor’s care," he said. "Not a 25-year-old kid with no medical background telling you to buy Super Silver Haze for your cancer.”

In Florida, people who are arrested for growing or possessing marijuana can use a medical-necessity defense in court, if their doctor is willing to testify on their behalf. But for longtime users like Cannabis Action Network president Catherine Jordan, who lives with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that’s not good enough. Speaking through an interpreter, she said, her goal has always been not to be a criminal.

“Florida has a medical necessity defense, but I had to be arrested to use it. This is a life-and-death situation for me. And I do have a right to life," she said.

Attorney General Bondi could choose to change the classification for marijuana, leaving it up to the Legislature to pass new regulations. Or she could refuse the group’s request. Finally, she could open up the issue for public input before making a decision.

For more news updates, follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JessicaPubRadio.