Bill Cotterell: Push for medical marijuana hits Florida

By Bill Cotterell

July 10, 2013

Puff ’em? Really?

The very serious, important campaign for a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana has a petition-gathering organization called “Puff ’em”?

Actually, that’s “People United For Medical Marijuana” — PUFMM — but government and politics have a way of collapsing big ideas into handy little catch phrases or acronyms that are easy to remember, and which instantly identify a cause.

Thus, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act becomes “Obamacare,” and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act becomes ERISA, which is much less of a mouthful. (Some irritated pension bureaucrats call it “Every Ridiculous Idea Since Adam.”)

Florida has seen public-initiative campaigns to legalize marijuana before, but organizers never got the necessary hundreds of thousands of voter petitions. Or maybe they just kept forgetting where they put them. Anyway, the idea never made it to the ballot.

It will be vastly different in 2014. Orlando attorney John Morgan, the “for the people” guy whose law firm you see advertised on TV and Tallahassee buses, is financing PUFMM, and he’s lawyered this thing pretty well. Medical marijuana advocates obviously realize that their first task is to allay the anti-pot hysteria that this issue always encounters.

This is not about pot legalization. It’s medical treatment for very ill people.

The proposed amendment reads like a statute, nailing down definitions and limitations in detail. The ballot summary spells it out in simple, non-lawyerly language to assure the voter that this is not about legalizing marijuana for fun. The libertarians can argue that government has no business telling us what we can put in our bodies, the pot smokers can argue that it’s safer than tobacco or alcohol, but all of that is for another day, another public initiative.

Basically, PUFMM’s amendment provides that a physician will be able to prescribe marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions. The Department of Health will regulate production and use of the drug.

Also, the ballot language points out that nothing Florida can do will affect federal drug laws. The current administration probably won’t go around busting legal marijuana users, but the amendment does not mislead voters into thinking a state can trump federal law.

That ought to avoid the California problem — which most marijuana users would probably say is not a problem — of “medical” use that’s largely a ruse. At least Colorado and Washington were honest and legalized pot use as a private matter, making no pretense of medical need.

State Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, sponsored medical marijuana bills last session but never got so much as a committee hearing. Cathy Jordan, a Manatee County woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), lobbied valiantly but couldn’t overcome the strongest reason legislators have for not acting: “We don’t have to.”

But if voters authorize medicinal uses of marijuana, lawmakers will have no choice. They will either have to pass implementing legislation and appropriate money to the Department of Health for reasonable regulation, to make sure it’s done right, or see it done wrong.

Polls show strong public support for legitimate medical marijuana. If the issue gets on the ballot next year, both candidates for governor and all legislative seats will be asked about it frequently.

Even with widespread public support of medical uses for marijuana, amending the Florida Constitution is not easy. PUFMM will need more than 680,000 voter signatures, reaching a minimum threshold in half the state’s congressional districts, just to get on the ballot — assuming the ballot language survives review by the Florida Supreme Court.

And then, the amendment will need 60-percent voter approval at the polls next year. In other words, for every vote against the measure, supporters will need to get a vote and a half for it.

PUFMM needs to marry the word “medical” to “marijuana” permanently in this campaign. It needs for voters to think of people with AIDS, ALS, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

There will be legitimate opposition. It will be easy to depict this as a first step toward complete legalization — a la Washington and Colorado — sort of a “gateway” vote that starts soft and leads to harder stuff later.

But isn’t it already pretty easy to find pot? It’s not like helping sick people is going to cause kids to start toking.

In a nonpresidential year, voter turnout will be lower, with fewer young people likely to vote. That’s not good for a serious issue like medical marijuana.

This is too important to leave to older voters, who grew up thinking of “Reefer Madness” as a documentary.

Copyright © 2013, Tallahassee Democrat

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