Thanks to a well-funded effort by ubiquitous trial lawyer John Morgan, Florida voters are likely to get the opportunity to vote for, or against, approving the use of medical marijuana next November.
For most supporters, the issue of medical marijuana is a highly emotional issue based on personal beliefs and scientific evidence that is often criticized by the establishment. Meanwhile, opponents say approving marijuana usage for medicinal purposes is a mere foot in the door that will eventually lead to approval of recreational marijuana use. That, they say, will lead to greater use of harder drugs and create more societal ills.
Personally, I have never used marijuana or other illegal drugs, and wondered what all the fuss is about. But I know plenty of people across the social spectrum who smoke pot, and it seems no more harmful than alcohol. The libertarian in me says take a laissez-faire approach: If it does no harm, let the individual decide for himself.
The “facts” on medical marijuana are as diverse as the people who smoke it. Credible studies from one side are countered with convincing conclusions by the other – and both sides have strong and plausible points.
At over $40 billion annually, enforcing our nation’s marijuana laws is expensive. Pot is big business not just for dealers, but for those who enforce our drug laws. And marijuana has the potential to be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry. If scientists are able to package the benefits of marijuana into a pill, it would be a gold mine for the drug companies. Those companies have a vested interest in keeping weed unavailable to patients in its natural state.
For the pro-legalization point of view, I spoke at length on two occasions with Morgan. To date, Morgan has put more than $1 million of his own money to get the medical marijuana issue on the ballot next year.
For the opposing view, I spent a day with Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, discussing the issue as we patrolled the streets and went on a scheduled security check over Hillsborough County in a sheriff’s office helicopter. Gee: The case against legalization
David Gee is on the front-lines of fighting crime and sees the effects of drugs on society every day. He is someone I trust and respect.
As we navigated over Tampa Bay and eastern parts of Hillsborough County, he pointed out where drug smuggling operations used to occur “in the old days.” He said these days, marijuana isn’t frequently smuggled into the country or grown outdoors. Rather, it’s more often grown indoors because it’s less susceptible to bugs and the weather, less obvious to law enforcement, and cheaper to grow due to higher yields.
The sheriff also says today’s marijuana is far stronger than the pot of the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s.
As for distribution, he said with resigned frustration, “They just put it in the mail.”
“Drugs are at the heart of almost everything we do. [They are] related to almost every crime we see out there,” the sheriff said.
That’s a lot of drug-related crime for sure. In the last several years, Hillsborough County’s jail averages between 55,000 and 75,000 inmates who enter its confines a year. On any given day, the massive Falkenburg Road jail houses about 3,000 inmates. Just a few years ago, that daily average was closer to 5,000, but electronic monitoring has helped lower the inmate population and save taxpayer dollars.
According to Gee, nothing good can come from marijuana legalization in any form, and its usage just creates more problems – especially among juveniles.
“Our [deputies in the schools] see the consequences. Kids get hooked on the euphoria. Then they become truant. They’re truant because they are out committing burglaries, because it’s an expensive habit,” he said.
“A kid gets jammed up a couple of times, and they’re now on a path to nowhere,” he said, referring to kids who end up in jail and in court. “It’s not a very forgiving system.”
According to Gee, if you legalize marijuana more kids will use it, just as they abuse alcohol, which is readily available. And those kids, according to the sheriff, will create a lot more problems for society than they already do.
The sheriff asked rhetorically, “Do we really want a society that is not sober?”
I reminded the sheriff that our current president – and two presidents before him – all admitted to smoking pot (though one said he didn’t inhale), and I asked him if he has ever used any illegal drugs.
In his matter-of-fact tone, he said, “No. I have not personally [ever used any illegal drugs].” It’s the answer I expected from this straight-laced lawman. What I didn’t expect was his follow-up comment.
“Talking about the recent presidents using illegal drugs, and then look at the state of our country – it makes you wonder...” he said, as his voice trailed off.
Morgan: Case for legialization
Morgan’s impressive law practice is based out of an office tower in downtown Orlando. He spends millions a year on TV pitching his “for the people” law firm that has 17 offices in six states. His Orlando office is well-appointed and includes a faux courtroom, where witnesses and lawyers can rehearse their testimony and courtroom sessions.
Prior to interviewing Morgan, I wasn’t a fan. Admittedly, on occasion I have referred to him as an ambulance-chaser. Although the phone interview went well, I wasn’t sure what kind of guy he was going to be in person. But in a matter of seconds after he walked into the conference room to meet me, I was impressed with his sincerity – which was flavored with more than an ounce of spice. Morgan doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks.
Morgan’s interest in medicinal marijuana has its roots in his family. Before his father died, his dad smoked marijuana to overcome pain and lack of appetite related to the esophageal cancer that ultimately took his life. Morgan’s brother is a quadriplegic who has used marijuana for years to overcome chronic pain.
As with the sheriff, I asked Morgan if he himself has ever smoked pot, and he said, “No. I am not a user.” “But I’ve partied with the best of them, Pam Bondi being one of them. We’ve had some great Gasparillas together,” he said of Florida’s Republican attorney general, who opposes medical marijuana.
Morgan claims hundreds of thousands of people in Florida will benefit from his efforts. He talks of kids with epilepsy and cancer patients who are being denied a way to deal with their pain, anxiety and-or lack of appetite.
He has strong words for drugs like Xanax and Oxycontin, which he notes are highly addictive, kill thousands of people a year due to overdoses.
He is genuine and passionate in his pitch; but questions about his motives run rampant among Tallahassee political insiders who theorize the marijuana initiative is a red herring to help Charlie Crist get elected governor by driving Democratic turn-out.
“I don’t believe this is a Democrat or Republican issue,” he said. He also told me that President Barack Obama’s pollster told him last year that as it relates to turnout, the medical marijuana issue, “doesn’t move it at all.”
“There are going to be people who are going to vote for medical marijuana who are going to be staunch Republicans and they’re going to vote for Rick Scott. The two have nothing to do with each other,” he said.
Morgan is a loyal Democrat who has supported liberal groups such as ACORN, Obama, and now, Democrat Charlie Crist. But his wife, Ultima, whom he described as “hot,” and “an angel,” is a socially conservative Republican, who is a dedicated opponent of abortion.
“She is going to vote for a bunch of Republicans, but she’s also going to vote for medical marijuana,” he said.
Still, a lot of Republicans and even some Democrats in Tallahassee oppose legalization.
Morgan’s frustration with politicians and the process was transparent as he described being denied the opportunity to get a hearing before the Legislature last year.
“These people in Tallahassee have too much time on their hands. They ought to go get a real job. And if they really want to do something, let’s have testimony. Let people come in and explain it...Let [celebrity doctor] Sanjay Gupta explain why he changed his mind. ... Bring Sheriff Gee and Pam Bondi who oppose it, let them sit down and have a dialogue and discourse [with us]. And then let’s have a vote,” he says.
“And if they want to undo what they say is my plan to have people come out and vote for Charlie Crist, just do the right thing and pass it [in the Legislature] this spring,” he said.
It is unlikely Morgan’s challenge will be taken up by the GOP-led Legislature. However, I’m sure if Morgan called him, Gee would gladly discuss legalization issues. But the sheriff’s view is deeply held.
“I think medical marijuana is just not valid,” Gee said. “There are studies on both sides. But it’s a segue into [approval of] recreational marijuana, and I don’t think we need more of those problems. I don’t buy the argument that legalization would reduce crime.”
The sheriff should know, he’s been fighting crime in Hillsborough County since he was 18 years old.
Morgan says his view is also one of conviction and that his motives are pure.
“I’m not doing this to make me feel good. I’m doing it to make other people feel good,” he said.
After researching the issue, and listening to both of these intelligent and accomplished men, I remain more confused than ever.
I don’t want to see marijuana legalized for recreational or medicinal purposes because of the dangers cited by Gee. On the other hand, I would want it available to me if I were afflicted with some dreadful disease. Kind of like despising trial lawyers until you need one, it is easy to disparage a drug like marijuana until you need it.
Chris Ingram has been a political consultant for more than 20 years. He is a frequent contributing columnist for the Tampa Tribune and is a political analyst for Bay News 9. Follow him on Twitter at: @IrreverentView.