For 20-year-old Michael Budzynski, the good days are when he doesn’t suffer the terrible seizures that ruined his mind, leaving him with the mental capacity of an 18-month-old. On those days, the Eustis man isn’t enduring migraines, and his restless leg isn’t thrashing. His mother, Marilyn, sees glimpses of the bright, fearless little boy she knew before he was devastated by Dravet syndrome, a severe and incurable form of epilepsy that targets children.
She is convinced that medical marijuana — used successfully on 40 other people nationwide with the same syndrome — could give her son more good days. It’s banned in Florida, but that could change if a statewide ballot initiative to make it legal succeeds.
“It gives me new hope that I haven’t had in a long time. Our Michael has deteriorated to a miserable state,” Marilyn Budzynski said. “We should not be denying people who could benefit from a chance at a better quality of life.”
Medical marijuana has been legalized in 20 states and the District of Columbia for a wide range of medical conditions — cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as epilepsy.
Although it’s illegal under federal law, Justice Department officials have said that prosecuting medical-marijuana cases in states where it’s legal is not a priority.
Orlando trial attorney John Morgan is championing the drive to make it legal in Florida through a state system that would license treatment centers and register patients. The petition drive, run by People United for Medical Marijuana, needs nearly 700,000 verified signatures by February to make it onto the November 2014 ballot. The group already has more than 100,000 signatures, enough to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the ballot language.
Opponents counter that medical marijuana could pave the way for recreational use and further drug abuse.
Morgan said medical marijuana helps his brother, Tim, a quadriplegic who would otherwise take eight Percocets a day to relieve severe spasms. He saw how it eased the pain for his father, who died 25 years ago this week from cancer and emphysema.
“I know it works, and I know if it became legal in Florida, it would help tens of thousands of people,” Morgan said. “Why would we deny someone who is terminally ill the most compassion and the most mercy at the end of their lives?”
Anecdotal evidence and a growing body of studies show medical benefits from marijuana as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory drug that is less addictive and has fewer side effects than other pain medications already available by prescription.
However, opponents of legalization question the medical benefits of marijuana. The Florida Medical Association is opposed to medical marijuana and advises doctors to refrain from prescribing it unless its use is approved in the future by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Florida Police Chiefs Association also remains opposed to legalization. Such a change could open opportunities for abuse, addiction and crimes related to marijuana use, the association contends.
“As a career law-enforcement officer, I do not want to have to deal with the effects that impaired individuals cause to other people,” said Philip Thorne, chief of police in the Panhandle town of Springfield and president of the police-chiefs organization. “It creates all kind of issues associated with marijuana in general.
“Everybody and their brother would abuse the system to get marijuana.”
Florida proponents want to set up a tightly controlled system to regulate the use of medical marijuana, hoping not to repeat problems with California’s law, which is more lax.
The Florida referendum would require special ID cards for patients who receive physician’s prescriptions to buy the drug through state-licensed treatment centers. The proposal would not allow people to grow their own.
“They don’t want California, where with a wink and a nod, a witch doctor could give out a prescription,” Morgan said. “People are OK with it, but they want it highly regulated.”
One of the biggest arguments against marijuana legalization is its potential as a “gateway” drug, in which marijuana users progress to more addictive illegal drugs, such as heroin or cocaine.
But Morgan strongly disputes that characterization.
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