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January 27, 2014

After split state Supreme Court decision, Florida becomes next state to watch closely concerning pot reform politics

As reported in this lengthy and effective Miami Herald article, which is headlined "Medical marijuana headed to Florida ballot after Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision," the Sunshine State is now the place to watch for both supporters and opponents of modern marijuana reform movements. Here are the basics:

Florida voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use, after the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that a proposed constitutional amendment won’t mislead people when they go to the polls in the Nov. 4 elections.

“Voters are given fair notice as to the chief purpose and scope of the proposed amendment, which is to allow a restricted use of marijuana for certain ‘debilitating’ medical conditions,” the court said in a 4-3 ruling that split liberals and conservatives. “We therefore reject the opponents’ assertion that the amendment ‘would allow far wider marijuana use than the ballot title and summary reveal.’”

By going to such great and explicit lengths in knocking down a core objection to the amendment, the justices dealt a serious blow to the talking points of opponents who called the measure a type of backdoor legalization that allows for “unfettered” marijuana use for minor ailments.

Leading the opposition: Attorney General Pam Bondi, state House Speaker Will Weatherford, state Senate President Don Gaetz and many conservative-leaning lobby groups based in the state Capitol. Gov. Rick Scott also opposes the medical marijuana amendment.

Democratic governor candidates Charlie Crist and Nan Rich support the amendment, as does Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie. The amendment draws strong bipartisan support from voters right now, according to polls, so the effect it will have on the governor’s race is debatable.

A host of polls show Florida's measure would pass right now, with one survey showing support as high as 82 percent. The most recent Public Policy Polling survey gauged voter support at 65 percent. If the amendment passes — for which it needs 60 percent of the vote — Florida would become the 21st state plus the District of Columbia to decriminalize marijuana for medical use. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

The citizens’ group pushing the amendment, People United for Medical Marijuana, pointed out that the Florida Legislature, led by Republicans, has repeatedly blocked medical-marijuana efforts from even getting a hearing in the state Capitol until recently.

Opponents say medical marijuana is a first step toward legalizing marijuana in general and they opposed Florida’s measure because they said it would trick voters into legalizing pot under the guise of helping sick people. One of the most conservative members of the court, Chief Justice Ricky Polston, echoed the arguments of opponents — sure to be amplified on the campaign trail — in saying the proposal is designed to “hide the ball” from voters....

With the amendment on the ballot in the gubernatorial election year, consultants and voting experts say it's an open question about whether it will help Democrats or hurt Republicans.

Prior state constitutional amendments had no discernable impact on other statewide races. A successful 2010 anti-gerrymandering amendment pushed by liberal groups in Florida did nothing to stop conservatives from racking up historic wins that year. And a successful 2008 amendment banning gay marriage that conservatives drafted did nothing to stop President Obama and Democrats from making big gains....

Despite clearing the tall hurdles of collecting signatures and arguing the case before the Supreme Court, People United and its backers know they're in for a difficult fight. Morgan said he believes the pharmaceutical and the corrections industries might try to defeat the amendment. The Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Association of Chiefs of Police, which tried to stop the amendment in court, plans to step up its criticisms through the year.

“This medical marijuana initiative is a fraud that’s being perpetuated against the compassionate people of the state of Florida — it is not about helping people,”' said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriff's Association. “It’s about legalizing marijuana for recreational use.” He said anecdotal evidence from states that have passed similar provisions shows “people have been able to receive recommendations for medical marijuana for menstrual cramps, back pain, and test anxiety.”

The amendment names nine specific medical conditions: cancer, glaucoma, human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. But physicians could recommend marijuana for other ailments if, after conducting an examination, they determine cannabis would help patients more than it would hurt them.

To opponents, that last clause allowing for medical marijuana in unspecified cases was a major loophole that could allow the “unfettered” prescribing of the drug. In at least two states — Washington and Colorado — the legalization of medical marijuana was a precursor to outright marijuana decriminalization. In both cases, voters decided the laws. Unlike Florida, those states don’t require super-majority votes of the citizenry to pass laws.

Recent state and national polls have shown that support for medical marijuana has increased, as well as support for complete legalization of cannabis. If the amendment passes, qualifying patients and doctors would receive instant protection from prosecution or punishment in most cases. But the Department of Health has six to nine months to make rules governing finer points of the program. The amendment does not give people permission to grow marijuana.

As support increased and People United showed signs of success, state lawmakers began giving more consideration to proposal for limited of medical cannabis, after years of quashing discussion of the issue. That limited proposal is aimed at a niche strain of marijuana called “Charlotte’s Web” that contains a low level of high-inducing THC and a stronger level of a substance called CBD, which parents and physicians say helps prevent severe epileptic attacks, especially in children.

But that legislative proposal, which is being resisted by some Republican leaders, is far more limited in scope than the proposed constitutional amendment. After repeatedly sponsoring medical-marijuana proposals in the Legislature, state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, recently joined with Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — the Senate president’s son — to push the Charlotte’s Web proposal.

The full Supreme Court of Florida ruling on the ballot initiative than was handed down today runs 84 pages and can be accessed at this link.

January 27, 2014 at 07:14 PM | Permalink

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