Medical Marijuana in Florida?

BY SUSAN REVELLO

Is the grass greener on the other side of Amendment 2?

Florida, a hot state to begin with, will be even hotter come Nov. 4.

Voters will be deciding whether to approve an amendment to the constitution legalizing medical marijuana. Known as Amendment 2 it has proponents and opponents in an expensive and heated campaign. There are also ramifications for the gubernatorial race based on “get out the vote” strategies for those wanting victory and those wanting to defeat the amendment.

Proponents cite compassion for the patients suffering from chronic diseases the bill is designed to help. Opponents proffer views this will lead to widespread misuse of medical marijuana and loopholes big enough to drive a car through.

What everyone can agree on is this is a complex issue and while polling tends to favor passage of the amendment Ñ it most likely will be close. Since it is a constitutional amendment, its approval requires 60 percent of the vote.

Currently, 22 states permit medical marijuana. Interestingly, the Florida Legislature last spring passed legislation (SB 1030) known as Charlotte’s Web, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in June. It provides limited use of medical marijuana, the strains high in cannabidiol, or CBD, but low in THC, to help children and adults with epilepsy. It may be accessed through oil or vapor form, but not smoked.

That law has drawn criticism for how it has been handled by the Florida Department of Health. A lottery system will be used to select five companies as medical marijuana dispensaries licensed to sell low-THC cannabis. Only nurseries that have been in business in Florida for 30 continuous years and that have at least 400,000 plants are eligible to apply.

The biggest complaint to date has come from the Legislature’s own oversight committee. A Sept. 3 article in the Tampa Bay Times outlines the 19-page complaint sent to the Department of Health by Marjorie Holladay, chief attorney for the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee.

In essence, a law passed in the spring for a narrow use of medical marijuana is fraught with issues in its implementation.

Amendment 2 is broader in scope and that worries both supporters and critics.

In navigating the hyperbole surrounding Amendment 2, it boils down to some core elements. Many sick people with debilitating illnesses will be helped from medical marijuana. It also will most likely create many unintended consequences in the process.

John Morgan, the face of Amendment 2, is a successful Orlando-based trial lawyer, who founded the multimillion dollar Morgan & Morgan business empire. His political committee, People United for Medical Marijuana, has raised millions. Its United for Care campaign is responsible for getting the amendment on the ballot through a well-organized petition drive.

Morgan has a compelling personal story about medical marijuana. His late father used marijuana in his cancer battle and his brother Tim, a quadriplegic as a result of a lifeguarding accident, uses marijuana to ease his pain.

A successful litigator, Morgan lays out his views very succinctly. “Disease does not pick political parties.” His response to critics’ concerns about widespread use of marijuana: “The gateway drug this leads to is morphine and the hospice center.” Morgan went on to discuss the fact that OxyContin kills 60,000 people a year. “There’s never been one overdosed death from marijuana ever.”

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has spoken out against the amendment. David Hart, executive vice president of government affairs and political operations was troubled with the fact this was an amendment to the constitution.

“Most of us believe that a constitution is a pretty sacred foundational governing document that’s supposed to direct human rights and how we’re going to frame our system of government, whether at a federal or a state level,” he says.

Hart continued, “This constitutional amendment 2 is not necessary, but beyond that we see numerous, what I would describe as fatal flaws.

“Amendment 2 uses the phrase ‘caregivers’ to dispense medical marijuana, but it doesn’t define who or what a ‘caregiver’ is. Doesn’t define what kind of training they need. In fact, under the amendment they could even be a felon. That’s a pretty broad loophole to not have clarity around.

“I think the Florida Chamber and our board wanted to be a voice: this amendment’s not necessary, it’s been dealt with by the Legislature appropriately in a more narrow and responsible fashion. We hope this isn’t the direction Florida voters want to go,” says Hart.

More common ground for proponents and critics are the examples of Colorado and California and their respective marijuana laws. Both sides agree these states do not embody what is proposed for Florida.

One common misperception: Colorado allows the sale of cannabis for recreational use, meaning it is legal there to buy, possess and consume marijuana for recreational use. It is not what Florida is contemplating with medical marijuana. Hart discussed the ramifications in Colorado for business owners with employee use and the negative impact on new companies relocating there.

Morgan stated California should be viewed as a case study as to what we should not do.

California was the first state to legalize cannabis in 1996 and the state has yet to establish a set of standards guiding the cultivation, production and sale of the plant. California currently leaves it up to local governments to decide how they want to implement the state’s medical marijuana law.

However, from a federal standpoint, cannabis is still illegal and remains a Schedule 1 drug (meaning it has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse). The federal government will not get involved as the Department of Justice published the Cole memorandum (Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole) in August 2013, laying out eight “enforcement priorities” beyond which it will defer to state and local law enforcement agencies to “address marijuana enforcement of their own narcotics laws.”

Florida voters should educate themselves on the amendment and our democracy will take care of the rest. There are eloquent and impassioned voices on the merits and problems with medical marijuana.

On Nov. 4 we will learn which side prevailed.