Fla. faces campaign for medical marijuana
Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
Oxycodone didn't work. Neither did hydrocodone nor any of the other narcotics sold to stop pain.
So an area woman did what many others do. She smoked marijuana to ease the pain she felt deep in her bones caused by treatment for breast cancer.
"I have a high tolerance for pain ... and I hated taking pills," the woman said. "But when I laid down to go to bed and my body started hurting and I couldn't sleep ... taking four or five tokes took the edge off so I could get to sleep."
A lot of people in the U.S. share the view that marijuana is medicine. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia allow varying use of marijuana for medical use.
Washington state approved medical marijuana in 1998 and Colorado in 2000. Last year Colorado and Washington state went further — voters approved referendums to legalize marijuana for recreational use as well.
Florida allows neither recreational use of pot nor medicinal use. Several attempts have been made to get the Legislature to approve medical marijuana, but the bills never advanced far.
Now, however, a major push to take the question to voters is starting. Orlando attorney John Morgan of Orlando-based Morgan and Morgan law firm — known for its "For the People" advertising — is pledging $3 million to get a statewide referendum on the 2014 general election ballot.
The backers need the signatures of 788,000 Floridians by early next year to get it on the ballot.
"I've been very surprised by the reaction so far. I've gotten thousands and thousands of people calling me and thanking me," Morgan said. "It's police, veterans, detectives, state attorneys, Democrats, Republicans. I think we are going to have success with this."
Morgan said other major financial backers are coming on board. He declined to name them.
In legalization efforts in other states, Progressive Insurance Chairman Peter Lewis and hedge fund manager George Soros were major bankrollers.
The group People United for Medical Marijuana in February released a poll showing that about 70 percent of Florida voters support medical use of marijuana.
Advocates believe they will have a much better chance of success with voters than with the Legislature, though Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network said she will continue to press the Legislature for approval.
"It's not an ‘if' anymore, it's a ‘when,' " James said. "When I first started this, it was depressing because so many of the people I work with day in and day out are terminal. As long as I see people and get phone calls every day from someone whose life has absolutely been changed by this medicine, I can't sit down."
Advocates say marijuana eases pain, reduces nausea and stimulates the appetite.
Given those benefits, advocates say it is useful for people with cancer, AIDS, arthritis, Parkinson's and sickle cell disease, among others.
Cathy Jordan has become the face of the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. The resident of Parrish in Manatee County has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease — and has been using marijuana to ease the symptoms that can include appetite loss, depression, pain, difficulty swallowing and drooling.
The bill in this year's legislative session was named after her.
But medical marijuana has critics. Some say that in some states that allow medical marijuana — California in particular — it is so easy to get a prescription for medical marijuana that just about anyone can get one.
Critics also point to potential health problems that smoking a substance can create.
Kevin Sabat, director of the Drug Policy Institute and assistant professor in the University of Florida College of Medicine, said marijuana has medical value, but rather than legalizing pot, he favors waiting until the beneficial properties in pot can be made into a form that is not smoked.
"We know marijuana has medical value, but we don't need to get that from smoking the raw plant just like we don't get medical value from opium by smoking it. We have morphine and other opiates that are useful," Sabat said.
"Anybody with a serious terminal illness, I have compassion for," Sabat continued. "We shouldn't be arresting them, and we should be getting them what they need. However, it is not responsible public policy to have smoked marijuana that is not dosed, that we don't know what's in it, being given to people in the name of compassion."
Two national groups opposing medical marijuana quickly pounced on John Morgan's quest.
Save Our Society From Drugs and the Drug Free America Foundation said in a news release that the ballot initiative, if approved, would in effect legalize marijuana all together.
"This amendment creates a California-style law with vagueness and ambiguity that will make de facto legalization the law of the land in Florida. They don't want to call it full legalization because they know Floridians don't want to legalize drugs," said Calvina Fay, executive director of the groups. "The devil is in the details, and we will spend the time necessary to study and research this amendment, but let there be no mistake — this amendment creates a path to legalization that is clear and obvious, and once Floridians realize what a Trojan horse this is, they will reject it."
Meanwhile, Sabat's view regarding development of a pharmaceutical version of marijuana will likely be a point of debate if the issue makes it to the ballot.
Proponents argue that marijuana is a medicine that people can grow themselves without having to buy an expensive product created and sold by a pharmaceutical company.
Jordan grows her own marijuana. A controversy ignited when the Manatee County Sheriff's Office raided her property and seized her plants. Prosecutors dropped the case after Jordan argued medical necessity, but she worries about future legal actions.
Morgan said the referendum will include the grow-your-own angle.
"Why do we need to let pharmaceutical companies get rich when we can grown it right in our garden?" Morgan said.
Morgan said he has seen the effects of marijuana on the sick firsthand. His late father, at the suggestion of his quadriplegic brother, began using marijuana to lessen the pain and boost his appetite.
Morgan said his father was an anti-drug kind of guy but was persuaded to take it.
"Daddy was never a use-of-drugs kind of guy, but he had nothing to lose. It relaxed him. He got his appetite back," Morgan said. "I got to see it work. He was eating, he was enjoying himself. It wasn't a cure, but his quality of life was much better."
Political consultant Ben Pollara ran a federal Super PAC supporting Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
When the election cycle ended, Pollara used some of the leftover money for a medical marijuana poll that showed 70 percent of likely voters favor the legal medicinal use of pot. He showed the results to Morgan and the attorney agreed to provide financial support.
Pollara took over an existing medical marijuana support group and renamed it United for Care. Most of its efforts have gone toward crafting a petition that can withstand a constitutional challenge based on Florida's "single subject" requirement for ballot initiatives.
Setting up a new regulatory framework for medical marijuana will touch on many aspects of state government, but Pollara believes it will pass legal muster.
"We feel like we've drafted it so there's only a single substantial impact," he said of amendment language, which was submitted to Florida's secretary of state for approval last week and is expected to be finalized and available for petition signatures within days.
Because opponents of medical marijuana often point to states like California, where loose controls have led to a free-for-all of clinics and patients with dubious ailments, considerable time went into crafting language calling for a tight regulatory system in Florida.
Explaining all that succinctly in the 75-word summary and 12-word title that will appear on the ballot is also critical. The actual amendment is 2.5 pages, but most people will not read it.
"Those 12 words and 75 words are extremely important," Pollara said.
The emphasis on the ballot language has slowed the campaign's start. With less than seven months to collect signatures, money will be critical.
Upward of $3 million is needed to pay signature gatherers and much more for advertising.
The campaign raised $193,167 between January and March, with the bulk coming from Morgan. Second quarter fundraising reports are due Wednesday. Pollara said they will show results similar to the first quarter.
The big fundraising push begins this week.
"Most of our focus has been on drafting the new petition," Pollara said before predicting a huge third quarter fundraising haul.