Medical marijuana will be back on the ballot this fall and it seems the opposition has gone up in smoke

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Medical marijuana will be back on the ballot this fall and it seems the opposition has gone up in smoke
Illustration by Kittens of industry

Remember that time in 2014 when medical marijuana got a half-million more votes than Gov. Rick Scott but was still defeated? No? Let's recap.

Two years ago, Florida's biggest political issue, aside from Scott beating Charlie Crist and his loyal Vornado Air Circulator fan for a second term, was Amendment 2, a measure that would have legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions. United for Care and its chairman, Orlando attorney John Morgan, pulled in millions of dollars to fight for the initiative. Drug Free Florida, which counted on supporters like the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, hauled in its own share of cash, including a $5 million contribution from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, to oppose medical marijuana.

The Florida Sheriffs Association and other anti-marijuana groups also launched the "Don't Let Florida Go to Pot" campaign (self-described as "a group of people and organizations that are educating Floridians on the dangers of marijuana"). Led by then-FSA president Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, the campaign claimed Amendment 2 would lead to "de facto legislation" of marijuana. This reporter remembers one Auburndale Chamber of Commerce meeting in Polk County at which Judd told the crowd that dangerous loopholes in the amendment would create pot shops around the state; let neighborhood drug dealers register as caregivers; allow children to procure marijuana, leading to edible marijuana treats being marketed to them; and mandate no liability for medical professionals and growers.

"Amendment 2 is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Judd told a silent room. "You are being scammed. ... They are taking advantage of your compassion."

Critics called Judd's methods "scare tactics." Those tactics may have inspired fear in some Floridians, because Amendment 2 failed. It received the support of the majority of voters, 58 percent, but failed to garner the 60 percent of votes it needed to become law.

Morgan vowed to bring medical marijuana back on the 2016 November ballot, and earlier this year, United for Care announced it had collected more than the required 683,149 signatures for Amendment 2 to go before Florida voters a second time.

But this time the opposition to medical marijuana has been quiet, almost nonexistent, says Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care. Tallahassee lawmakers had a change of heart regarding medical marijuana this session, and lawmakers in some cities, including Orlando, have proposed changes to legal citations regarding recreational marijuana.

"We've basically had the opportunity to do another draft and tightened it up a bit," he says. "We've changed some things based on perception and what our opponents and the Florida Supreme Court said."

Pollara says Amendment 2 now lists PTSD along with cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis under "debilitating medical conditions," as well as medical conditions "of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated, and for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient," he says.

Amendment 2 also contains new language on parental consent for minors seeking medical marijuana. Pollara says it was "intellectually dishonest" when opponents claimed physicians would give minors marijuana without parental consent, but they decided to add a clause anyway that requires physicians to obtain written consent from a parent. Caregivers would have to qualify and register with the Florida Department of Health, and the amendment allows the department to limit the number of patients a caregiver can serve.

"When our amendment went to the Florida Supreme Court last time, they filed nearly 3,000 pages of legal briefs against it," Pollara says. "This time there's literally zero opposition. The Supreme Court put us unanimously on the ballot."

The money trail seems to prove this. So far this year, the Drug Free Florida Committee has only received a $1,000 contribution from one person, according to Florida Division of Elections records. People United for Medical Marijuana, the group associated with United for Care, received almost $240,000 in the first three months of 2016.

"I think we're going to win," Pollara says. "Serving sick and suffering people has been the core of this campaign."

The FSA hasn't taken an official position on the amendment. In February, the organization passed a resolution saying that the legalization of marijuana would "be contrary to the interests of the public health, safety and welfare," but also that the Florida Legislature should be "the exclusive forum to initiate and make appropriate changes to laws related to the legalization of medical marijuana." Additionally, Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre voiced his support for medical marijuana based on its therapeutic properties.

"Individual sheriffs have the right to tell the public whether they support or oppose a constitutional amendment," says FSA spokesman Adam Montgomery in an email. "FSA will continue to work with its partners to educate the public about the harms of drug use, and sheriffs can inform citizens about their position on constitutional amendments that will be before the voters in this fall."

The normally outspoken Sheriff Grady Judd hasn't come out and said publicly what he thinks of Amendment 2 this time around.

"Sheriff Judd was the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association in 2014, when the so-called 'medical marijuana' constitutional amendment was proposed," says Donna Wood, spokeswoman for the Polk County Sheriff's Office, in an email. "He helped lead a successful statewide coalition against the amendment – and the amendment failed. The Sheriff's term as the FSA president is over and he is not leading a statewide opposition to this year's amendment. However, he believes now, as he did then, that marijuana is not a medicine."

While the fight to pass Amendment 2 continues, there have been other developments in the legalization of medical marijuana that reflect changing attitudes at the state level. The Florida Legislature passed a measure this year that expands a 2014 law that legalized non-euphoric strains of marijuana. House Bill 307 allows terminally ill patients to have access to drugs, including full-strength marijuana, that haven't been approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Although the 2014 law allowed five nurseries to grow marijuana for the entire state, administrative issues and lawsuits over licensing have bogged down the process. San Felasco Nurseries in Gainesville became the sixth dispensing organization after an administrative judge ruled in February that state officials wrongly rejected the nursery's application. Under HB 307, dispensing organizations that won legal challenges can also get licenses to start growing both low-THC and full-strength medical marijuana.

Lawmakers' attitudes on recreational marijuana are also changing, but legal reform has been limited to cities and counties. On Monday, Orlando's City Council voted 4-3 to approve an ordinance that would decriminalize the possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana, making it a violation of city code and giving officers the option to issue civil citations. There will be a second reading of the ordinance at the council's next meeting May 9.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced last week that the civil penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana could range from a $50 fine to a mandated court hearing, depending on the classification of the violation. The proposed measure follows similar laws that passed in Tampa and Volusia County.

"Sometimes, because of youthful mistakes, these young people enter the criminal justice system for possessing a small amount of marijuana," Dyer said at a press conference. "With an arrest record, it becomes more challenging for them to get a job, join the military or get financial aid for continuing their education. ... This change in policy will help us protect the futures of our young people."

Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the Tampa Police Department, says the department believed the penalties for possessing small amounts of pot were harsher than the offense.

"The majority of City Council agreed that sometimes someone makes a mistake in judgment," he says. "We're not condoning illegal drug use and we're not looking the other way. This was a way to provide a second [or] third chance for people without them having a criminal record that could affect future job prospects."

Like the proposed ordinance in Orlando, the Tampa law only allows people to receive a civil citation for marijuana possession if it's not tied to any other crime, and officers can use their discretion in deciding who gets a citation. Hegarty says some people have the misconception that the citation program works like a traffic ticket.

"It's not a brief encounter and can make for an inconvenient night," he says. "They can search your car and sometimes put you in handcuffs while they run tests on the marijuana."

Matt Morgan, son of John Morgan, called Orlando's move a "great step in the right direction," and even if those efforts don't provide access to medical marijuana, it can be a relief to patients who've been purchasing weed illegally for themselves or their children.

"What this does is send a message to Florida that there are people out there who need this medicine," he says. "It also sends the message that if you are in an unfortunate event where you make a mistake and are caught with a small amount of marijuana that you shouldn't be jailed for it. You should be given a second chance."

Matt Morgan says he's optimistic that opponents of Amendment 2 will endorse it in this election cycle because of the changes they've made.

"We need to do everything we can to support 'Yes on 2' and pass that amendment in November," he says. "The stigma of marijuana use before our first campaign was initiated was much different than it is now. Among Floridians, there is a more accepted perception of marijuana at this point in time, and I think gradually over time we keep getting to a point where the majority of Floridians are ready for legal medical marijuana."

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