Next stop in Florida’s medical marijuana debate, the courthouse

florida medical marijuana hbtv hemp beach tvWith a new poll showing that eight out of every 10 Florida voters favor the medical use of marijuana, the Florida Supreme Court may become the best place for opponents to stop the constitutional initiative. On Dec. 5, the justices will hear arguments over the language of the proposal that will be on the November 2014 ballot if sponsors can secure nearly 700,000 validated voter signatures by early next year.

Opponents, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislative leaders, doctors and anti-drug groups, will argue that the ballot language is misleading and would lead to the widespread use of marijuana far beyond the treatment of Floridians for debilitating diseases like cancer or ALS.

Supporters say they are pushing the amendment because lawmakers refuse to consider legislation on the issue and are out of touch with ordinary Floridians — as exemplified by a Quinnipiac University poll this month showing voters approved of letting doctors prescribe marijuana for medical conditions, 82 percent to 16 percent.

Supporters — among them is trial lawyer John Morgan, who is financing much of the initiative drive — say the ballot language is a straightforward attempt to allow Floridians to decide whether the state will join more than 20 others that have approved the use of medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana has been proven to give our loved ones relief they need, helping with pain, appetite, seizures and spasms,” Morgan said in a radio ad promoting the initiative. “Unfortunately, Tallahassee politicians refused to vote on the issue last session. They wouldn’t even hear testimony from patients and their families. Therefore, we will take this act of mercy to you, the people.” The Supreme Court decision will pivot on two issues: whether the ballot language is accurate, and whether the proposal encompasses a “single subject.” Opponents say the measure misses the mark on both counts.

In a brief filed this month, Bondi, the state’s top legal officer, argued that the amendment is so broadly written that while it would let patients with cancer and other serious diseases use medical marijuana, it would also make it available to other Floridians with less-debilitating ailments that include insomnia, anxiety and “everyday aches and pains.”

“If voters want to make Florida one of the most permissive medical marijuana states in the country they can use their constitutional initiative power to do so. That is their right,” the brief said. But Bondi argued that the amendment must be rejected by the court because ballot language does not reveal the initiative’s “true purpose.” Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, filed a brief arguing that in addition to misleading language, the ballot proposal includes more than one subject.

Aside from decriminalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the legislative leaders said the amendment includes a new regulatory scheme affecting both the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as a provision providing immunity from civil liability.

“The combination of the three subjects in a single-initiative petition cannot survive single-subject review,” the legislative brief said. People United for Medical Marijuana, the initiative group, defended the measure in a brief, arguing that it did not violate the single-subject rule because its prime purpose is to allow the medical use of marijuana. The group said all the other issues raised by opponents “are directly connected to that purpose and designed to implement that single goal in a defined and limited way.”

The initiative supporters also said the ballot language is accurate in explaining that “the chief purpose of the amendment is to allow use of medical marijuana for individuals with certain medical conditions and diseases as determined by a Florida physician.”

“This proposal presents a clear choice to voters,” said the brief, written in part by former House Speaker Jon Mills, who is also a former law school dean at the University of Florida. The Supreme Court decision, which will come sometime after the oral arguments are made, is only one potential roadblock for the medical marijuana campaign. Supporters still must gather 683,149 verified voter signatures by February in order to get the initiative on 2014 general election ballot.

As of this week, the state Division of Elections reported that the initiative drive had 131,655 validated signatures — although there is a lag time between when the petitions are collected and when they’re verified by the local supervisors of elections. The amendment campaign was offering an incentive to petition collectors, allowing them to enter a contest to attend the Supreme Court hearing in Tallahassee. “This is going to be one of the most historic arguments held in Florida in recent years and we know you’ll want to be there,” Ben Pollara, the campaign manager, said in a message to supporters this week.

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