Florida Voters Most Likely Will Have Last Say On Medical Marijuana

Feb 22, 2015 by

Where are we on medical marijuana?

Well, let’s see, citizens have been asking the Florida Legislature to legalize it for at least a decade — and legislators said no.

There was a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November of 2014 that was put there through citizen initiative. Months before the election, it was polling at 78 percent with support across party lines, age, race and gender.

Legislative leaders came out publicly against the measure. Anti-drug crusaders formed a political action committee and hit up Daddy Warbucks — Sheldon Adelson — for millions to fund their effort.

What? You’re not familiar with Sheldon? Maybe that’s because he lives thousands of miles away in Las Vegas. But rest assured legislators and the governor know him. He and his lobbyists have been courting those in power to get expanded casino gambling here in Florida. Odd that someone perfectly fine with drinking and gambling could be so offended by legalized medical marijuana to help those with debilitating illness.

Joining the cause, the sheriffs launched an offensive warning folks that a parade of horribles — terrible, awful, hideous, horrendous things—would happen if we allowed this — gasp — naturally occurring, pain-relieving remedy to be legal for medical purposes in Florida.

And the very idea of trusting doctors to recommend this drug was just too dangerous and riddled with the risk of over-utilization. Never mind that doctors prescribe much more dangerous drugs on a routine basis. Never mind that 23 other states have legalized medical marijuana.

And take a look up. (It’s OK, I promise) Contrary to their claim, the sky is not falling.

After the coordinated and effective attack against marijuana, against the sponsor of the amendment and against amending the Constitution — the amendment’s support dropped tremendously. Loyal Republicans followed the directions of party leaders and voters heeding their local sheriffs tempered down their once solid support.

A solid majority — 58 percent — voted for the amendment but that was short of the 60 percent needed. Nonetheless, when 58 percent of the voters support a ballot initiative it does send the message that Florida voters do want medical marijuana legalized. Shouldn’t that get the governor’s and the Legislature’s attention? Keep in mind; the governor won re-election with a scant 49 percent of the vote.

So what are they doing to show a good-faith effort to answer?

The folks at United for Care have already made changes to the constitutional amendment language to appease the critics’ concerns — even though it really wasn’t necessary since the Legislature would have the ability to do that with implementing language after the amendment passes. The group also began the petition-gathering process all over again — collecting the hundreds of thousands of validated signatures.

Because it seems likely this “new and improved” initiative will be on the 2016 ballot, the Legislature has an added incentive to offer up its own proposal. The ballot initiative is the stick and it seems to be having some effect.

The Legislature is showing signs of a preemptive strike, believing that the constitutional amendment has an excellent chance of passing in a presidential election year when turnout is higher and the youth vote is more energized. And with the new ballot language, many of the faux arguments from the last effort should fade away.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes introduced a bill that is slightly more limited than the citizen initiative and is receiving modest support from a sheriff or two. If his bill passes, there might not be a need for the constitutional amendment. But then, as if assuming the roles of good cop/bad cop, state Rep. Greg Steube introduced an extremely scaled-back “non-smokable” version.

Meanwhile, the sheriffs have met, with 40 of 67 sheriffs voting to take a position. On a vote of 38-2 they once again opposed legalizing medical marijuana—both the new modified amendment language and the Florida Senate bill. Since the “non-smokable” House bill has emerged, there have been a few rumblings that the sheriffs might be able to support it.

The Legislature has two legislative sessions — this spring and next — to follow the voters’ wishes on medical marijuana. It’s important to note that the very limited “Charlotte’s Web” bill the Legislature passed in 2014 was supposed to make a particular strain of marijuana available to Floridians suffering from epilepsy by January 1 — but that still hasn’t happened.

The voters will most likely have the last say. If they don’t like what the Legislature and governor do, they can pass the new constitutional amendment with the knowledge that the Legislature had plenty of opportunity to do as they asked and chose not to.

Stay tuned.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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