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Medical Marijuana Debate Heads For Florida Supreme Court

Chuck Coker

When Floridians choose their next governor in 2014, they might also decide whether to legalize medical marijuana. But the state attorney general and legislative leaders don’t want the question to make it onto ballots as it’s currently written.

Medical marijuana legalization advocates and opponents are readying arguments they’ll make before the state supreme court next month. The high court will rule on whether a proposed constitutional amendment is misleading.

Court filings by Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) and Rep. Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) say the text hides the amendment’s true potential for enabling widespread marijuana use. Anti-drug-abuse groups agree.

“You know, anybody would be able to get this of any age—there’s not an age restriction on it—for any condition that their physician wanted to give it to them for,” says Amy Ronshausen, executive director of the Florida Coalition Alliance of drug-free community groups.

She says her group doesn’t believe smoked marijuana is real medicine anyway.

“When you get your prescription, you go to a pharmacy and you have it filled. And on the bottle, it says when to take it, interactions with other medications, it has warnings,” she says.

Ronshausen says with marijuana, a patient doesn’t know the strength of what they’re getting.

But close to a quarter-million Floridians have signed petitions in support of its legalization. Ben Pollara is leading the petition drive, which aims to gather about 600,000 more signatures by the end of the year.

“It’s really for people who are suffering in the state who have gone through a number of different treatments to try alleviate their symptoms and ease their pain and have come up short,” he says.

But opponents including the Florida Sheriffs Association point to the state’s recent pill mill epidemic and ask if Floridians want pot shops to be the new pill mills.

Pollara argues the proposed amendment wouldn’t allow people easy access. “There’s a lot of hoops that need to be jumped through in order to get a medical marijuana treatment card here. So it’s not gonna be like if you’re going to be here for a week, that you can even get one.”

The amendment would require a licensed physician to examine a patient before issuing a medical marijuana certificate. That would be sent to the state in exchange for a patient ID card.

Pollara adds no changes would go into effect until after the following legislative session, giving lawmakers and healthcare regulators the opportunity to make and clarify rules.

Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) has been sponsoring medical marijuana bills for the past three years but they haven’t been given a hearing. He says, “This can be legislated properly. You know, my legislation actually requires the user of the medical marijuana to use it in the privacy of their own home.”

Clemens says he’s disappointed leadership didn’t consult him before filing their opposition to the amendment.

“I think in a lot of ways the reactions were political rather than policy driven,” he says.

University of Miami political scientist George Gonzalez says, “Ultimately I think politics had to come into the calculus there."

Gonzalez says Bondi’s opposition to the initiative could be a strategy to bring out her base of voters in a year when she’s up for reelection.  Likewise, he says the controversial issue of medical marijuana could affect voter turnout in next year’s governor’s race.

“A lot depends on the campaigns themselves and how they seek to structure it,” he says. “So if both candidates try to make this as a litmus test for voters, that could have an impact.”

That is, if the amendment passes Supreme Court review. Oral arguments are scheduled for early December.