by John Romana, Times Columnist
The fight is starting to heat up, and the power brokers are flexing their might.
Months away from a deadline to get a medical marijuana amendment approved for the 2014 ballot, political and economic forces are suddenly on the move.
In Tallahassee, the attorney general has contested the language in the proposed amendment. In Miami, a consultant has hired a high-priced firm to gather signatures for a needed petition. Across the state, political operatives are trying to weigh the amendment's potential impact on the gubernatorial race.
And in a 700-square-foot home in New Port Richey, a 31-year-old woman and her Jack Russell terrier wait for the hospice nurse to arrive.
Sara Carstensen says her cancer is terminal, and the best guess in April was she might survive six months. That makes this morning a celebration of sorts since Saturday was the deadline. Kind of like outliving your expiration date, she says with just a hint of laughter.
Back when she was on chemo and taking part in clinical trials, smoking marijuana was the only thing that allowed her to keep food down. Nowadays, when a friend can buy it, it helps her manage the pain and nausea from her other medications as well as the tumor pressing against her digestive tract.
For Sara, the proposed amendment is more symbolic than necessary. Like the comfort of a whispered treasure. All she wants is to know that it might succeed.
"I don't want anybody to suffer the way I've suffered,'' she said. "For a government to say, 'No, you can't have this because we say it's not legal'? I can't understand that.
"It's just not fair.''
For others, this amendment represents something else.
Some will tell you it is a barely disguised ploy. A way to get one step closer to legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Some will tell you it is a crusade. A strike against the pharmaceutical companies that want us dependent on their brand of prescription drugs.
It is a political battle. A law enforcement question. A scientific debate with both sides insisting the evidence is clearly weighted in their favor.
The executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, based in St. Petersburg, says the issue is too complex and dangerous to be put on a ballot. The Food and Drug Administration exists for a reason, Calvina Fay says, and bypassing scientific data with a statewide show of hands is a disaster waiting to happen.
"We have a process in this country that is based on science and research and it's dangerous for that process to be circumvented,'' Fay said. "Particularly with a drug that is mind-altering, and that is what marijuana is.''
The proposed amendment is necessary, says Ben Pollara of People United for Medical Marijuana, because state legislators have refused to consider bills that allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for patients with debilitating illnesses.
"The reason for the amendment is because legislators abdicated their responsibility by not even giving it a hearing,'' Pollara said. "To me, it is somewhat disrespectful to the voters of Florida to say they are not capable of making this decision on their own.''
Medical marijuana has already been approved by voters or lawmakers in 20 states, although none in the Southeast.
Polls indicate it has strong support in Florida, although its passage is far from reality. The petition has been around for more than a year and has barely 200,000 names. Another 500,000 or so must be collected and verified in the next few months.
"It sounds and feels incredibly daunting to me,'' Pollara said. "But I have a highly skilled team working on it, and they tell me they can get it done.''
Even if the petition succeeds, state law requires that an amendment garner at least 60 percent of the vote.
So as the deadline draws near, is the medical marijuana amendment worth supporting?
I am clearly no scientist, and have only scratched the surface in research. My opinion is worth no more than yours, and probably quite less.
But it seems to me that marijuana is less addictive and far less harmful than alcohol and a slew of prescription drugs. Marijuana laws are costly to enforce and seem to have little deterrence, which makes them a poor combination of worthless and meaningless.
Beyond that is the issue of marijuana's value. If you have ever heard the despair in a cancer patient's tone, you have to believe there is a way to make this work.
"Marijuana is the only thing that has made my life bearable the past year, and yet if I get caught with it I can go to jail,'' said Sara, who says she is in Stage 3C of endometrial cancer. "So let's just put it on the ballot and let people decide themselves.
"I'm just hoping I'm around to see these changes I'm fighting for.''
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.