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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: Pot language is clear, but opponents’ motive smoky

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According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Floridians support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes by a whopping 82-16 margin, crossing all party lines.

Frustrated by decades of inaction by the Florida Legislature, citizens have taken it into their own hands to put the issue directly before voters through a citizens’ initiative to amend the Florida Constitution.

The question should be whether Florida wants to join 20 other states and the District of Columbia in making medical marijuana available to its residents suffering from debilitating illnesses.

Instead, those in Florida leadership positions in both the legislative and executive branches are busy trying to prevent the issue from making it to the ballot by filing briefs before the Florida Supreme Court.

Their goal is to have the Medical Marijuana Citizens Initiative removed from ballot consideration even if the necessary 684,000 signatures are gathered.

Over the past two decades, the Legislature has opposed addressing any form of legalization of marijuana; it has made a concerted effort to limit citizens’ initiatives and has used legislatively proposed constitutional amendments to drive voter turnout.

Florida was so serious about seeking medical cures that a 2003 special session was called for the purpose of awarding Scripps Research Institute $310 million of federal stimulus funds to lure the research facility to Florida.

We also take pain medication addiction very seriously in Florida, establishing some of the most stringent regulations to curb the abuse of prescription drugs through legislation intended to stop the proliferation of “pill mills.”

Yet, legislative leaders refuse to consider the use of medical marijuana despite the growing body of medical evidence as to its beneficial uses. Among those uses, medical marijuana has been touted as successful for fighting nausea, increasing appetite for those under radiation treatment for cancer, and treating muscle tightness for those with multiple sclerosis.

Also in play is the Legislature’s disdain of citizens’ rights to direct democracy, when elected officials refuse to listen to the public will through representative democracy. This was apparent in 2002, 2004, and 2006, when the Florida Legislature proposed three constitutional amendments making it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative process to amend their constitution. It also raised the threshold for passage of all constitutional amendments to 60 percent. There were a plethora of statutory changes as well to try to curb those pesky attempts by citizens.

Ironically, the Legislature, not citizens, have placed the majority of constitutional amendments on the ballot. From 1978 to 2012, the Legislature was responsible for 77 ballot measures compared to 28 for all citizen groups combined. In the 2012 election, the Legislature proposed all 11 ballot amendments.

And, of course, there are the political ramifications.

The Florida attorney general, joined by the Florida Senate president and the speaker of the Florida House, is challenging the wording of the proposed marijuana amendment, claiming that the ballot summary and title are misleading.

I trust that Floridians are smart enough to understand that this amendment would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes. Further, the Legislature retains the ability to regulate its use through statutory means.

Cynically, one might question legislators’ sincerity, as their own proposed amendments have been much more confusing to voters. Take, for example, this title on the 2012 ballot: “Property Tax Limitations; Property Value Decline; Reduction for Nonhomestead Assessment Increases; Delay of Scheduled Repeal.” Clear as mud.

The title that is being disputed? “Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions.”

An accusation frequently made is that well-known attorney John Morgan, who is leading this effort to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, is a close friend and employer of gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist and that his motivation is to help turn out the vote. But although medical marijuana may play a factor in turnout, the recent poll shows that support crosses all party lines.

In control for the past 18 years, Republicans have placed tax relief and social issues such as abortion, religious freedom and gambling on the ballot in an effort to turn out their own base. Not a bad strategy.

To the official talking points of Republican leaders in the executive and legislative branches that they are challenging the language to protect voters from being misled, I say baloney.

The legislative session starts in March, when legislators can easily rewrite language to remove any perceived confusion. They also have the ability to legalize medical marijuana by statute, making the constitutional amendment unnecessary. But don’t hold your breath. Legislators’ failure to act is a clear indication they don’t want it to pass despite overwhelming public support.

Missing in all this political gamesmanship is the willingness to give relief, inexpensively and with very little risk, to those suffering with debilitating illness.

So stop the posturing and lead on this issue or just get out of the way and let the people do it.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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