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Politics

Statewide vote puts Florida at forefront of marijuana debate

By William March, JAMES ROSICA
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: January 28, 2014 at 03:39 PM

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TALLAHASSEE — The decision by the Florida Supreme Court approving a statewide vote on a medical marijuana amendment opens the possibility of a hard-fought campaign and moves the state to the front lines of the national effort to liberalize marijuana laws.

The court's 4-3 decision means the proposed amendment to the state constitution will go on the state's Nov. 4 general election ballot. Last week, the initiative crossed its other hurdle — getting more than 683,000 validated signatures on petitions.

“I was not surprised, but I am grateful” for the court's decision, said John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who provided financial backing for the petition drive and promised to do the same for a campaign to pass the referendum.

Morgan forecast a low-key campaign. “We'll be an asterisk compared to the Charlie Crist-Rick Scott race,” he said. Still, he vowed he'll do “whatever it takes” financially to back the measure.

Ben Pollara, political consultant managing United for Care in support of the measure, said proponents “will fight a hard campaign, regardless what our opponents do. We're going to run like we're 10 points behind.”

That includes television advertising, he said.

Organized opposition seems certain to form, but its outlines aren't yet clear.

It may center on the national anti-drug abuse effort led by former ambassador and national Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg and his wife, Betty Sembler, board chairwoman of Save Our Society from Drugs.

“We will spend the time necessary to educate Florida voters about the harms of marijuana and the deceptiveness of this campaign,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the organization.

She said “vagueness and loopholes in the initiative will create de-facto marijuana legalization,” and “I am optimistic that Floridians will realize what a Trojan horse this is and reject it,”

Mel Sembler said he expected the group “may be taking the lead in this,” but didn't want to say whether he'll add his own political and financial clout.

“Do I think this is important? Yes,” he said, but, “I have a lot of campaigns going right now.”

Fay said she expects a political action committee will form to oppose the measure, but when asked who might form one, she said, “I'm not at liberty to say.”

Instead, she cited the groups that signed on to her organization's legal brief opposing the amendment's ballot language before the Supreme Court, including the Florida Medical Association, Florida Chamber of Commerce, and state police chief's and sheriff's associations.

One of the losers in the Supreme Court decision is Attorney General Pam Bondi, who opposed the measure. She released a terse statement Monday: “Today's ruling leaves the issue of medical marijuana in the hands of Florida's voters. I encourage every Floridian to read the full amendment in order to understand the impact it could have on Floridians.”

One possible winner is Crist, Democratic challenger to Scott, the incumbent Republican governor.

Some political experts believe — though others dispute it — that having the marijuana initiative on the ballot will draw out voters favorable to Crist.

Crist issued a one-sentence statement: “This is an issue of compassion, trusting doctors, and trusting the people of Florida. I will vote for it.”

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, competing with Crist for the Democratic nomination, also supports the measure.

Senate President Don Gaetz declined comment, but House Speaker Will Weatherford let loose in an email.

“Make no mistake: This is not about compassionate medical marijuana,” he said. “This is about the Coloradofication of Florida, where the end game is a pot shop on every street corner.”

For advocates of marijuana liberalization, “This is potentially a major step forward and is happening at just the right point in history,” said Steve Fox, co-founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Fox noted that political leaders ranging from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry have voiced support recently for states to set their own policies on marijuana.

“A year ago, one may have felt getting 60 percent in Florida would be difficult, but now there seems like a good chance it actually will” pass, he said.

Morgan Fox of the national Marijuana Policy Project, no relation to Steve Fox, said the Florida vote matters because, “We always thought Florida would be one of the last states to move. Apparently public opinion has changed enough to move it forward.”

Bondi and state lawmakers challenged the amendment's ballot language before the Supreme Court as unclear and misleading, in part because it did not make a distinction between “diseases” and “debilitating medical conditions.”

Bondi argued that by leaving “no condition off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age.”

Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy A. Quince and James E.C. Perry found that the proposed amendment's ballot title and summary “are not clearly and conclusively defective.”

“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 justice said in their 84-page ruling.

The amendment gives examples including cancer, AIDS and Parkinson's disease.

“The proposed amendment is not open-ended because the general category of 'other conditions' that may qualify as a 'debilitating medical condition' … must be of the same kind or class as those conditions specifically mentioned,” and not “a broad and open-ended range of more minor medical conditions.”

Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justices Charles Canady and Jorge Labarga dissented.

“Foisting this seriously deceptive ballot summary on the voters does a severe disservice to the people and to their constitution,” Canady wrote.

The “diverse group of medical conditions” covered by the amendment “rang(es) from the inevitably and devastatingly debilitating and fatal, to conditions that frequently can be successfully treated and controlled or cured,” he wrote.

“The majority turns a blind eye to the misleading reference to 'debilitating diseases' in the ballot summary,” he added.

Labarga said, “No amount of voter homework would disclose exactly what conditions or diseases may be treated with medical marijuana under this ballot title and summary.”

And Canady noted that the ballot summary “states that the proposed amendment '(d)oes not authorize violations of federal law,' but the truth is that violations of federal law unquestionably are authorized by the amendment.

“A more misleading characterization of the relationship between the amendment and federal law is hard to conceive,” he wrote. “The majority … blithely sidesteps (this) basic deception.”

Selling marijuana is still a federal crime, although the Obama administration has suggested that federal prosecutors not charge those who distribute medical marijuana in compliance with a state law.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical marijuana under state law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In a Quinnipiac University poll, Florida voters supported medical marijuana 82 percent to 16 percent.

Gov. Rick Scott has said he will vote 'no' on the amendment, but added, “No matter my personal beliefs, a ballot initiative would be up to the voters to decide.”

Reaction from proponents was swift on social media.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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