Campaign to legalize medical marijuana heats up, while Bondi declares opposition
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 9:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 9:57 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — The campaign to legalize the medical use of marijuana in Florida is reaching a critical juncture at the same time the state's attorney general is lining up against it.
The effort is still well short of the number of valid voters' signatures needed before a referendum on a constitutional amendment can be held next year. The amendment wording also will have to clear the Florida Supreme Court.
Still, supporters say they're on track.
"Every day we get one step closer to bringing compassionate care to suffering Floridians," said Ben Pollara, the campaign manager for People United for Medical Marijuana, the group trying to get the issue on the November 2014 ballot.
Pollara's comments came in a message to supporters this week, saying the campaign has collected nearly 200,000 voter signatures, with more than 110,000 validated. Those numbers are still well short of the 683,149 valid signatures the group will need by Feb. 5 to qualify for next year's general election ballot.
On Thursday, Attorney General Pam Bondi criticized the proposed amendment in a filing to the state high court. By law, the attorney general asks the court to review proposed amendments.
The Supreme Court could throw out the amendment if it agrees with Bondi.
The Republican attorney general called the amendment misleading and told the court that, if passed by voters, the measure would allow marijuana use in limitless situations.
Bondi also said the amendment could confuse voters into thinking medical marijuana use would be allowed under federal law.
The campaign behind the amendment is planning to use professional signature gatherers to reach its goal and has already paid about $350,000 to National Voter Outreach, a Nevada company that specializes in petition signature collection, according to the most recent election reports.
Pollara said that effort will be intensifying: "A large-scale paid petition-gathering operation will resume in the coming weeks," he said.
In an interview in August, John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who is the prime mover behind the constitutional amendment drive, estimated it would take about $3.5 million to get the issue before voters next year.
Morgan and his law firm have contributed about $400,000 out of the $615,000 raised this year for the campaign through the end of September, according to the state Division of Elections.
Both Morgan and Pollara said the paid campaign will be supplemented by volunteers.
"Our staff, while limited, has assembled teams of volunteers that are setting up petition-gathering events throughout the state," Pollara said. "We have literally thousands of people who have signed up to volunteer."
Morgan said the campaign is attracting volunteers "who are really passionate about this."
"How well we can coordinate them will be another story," he said.
The collection of signatures already has triggered several other events, including a review by the Florida Supreme Court of the ballot language.
Additionally, state economists have begun a formal evaluation of the proposal's potential financial impact on the state.
Among the issues the economists will be refining in a series of meetings will be whether or not marijuana will be considered an agricultural crop that could qualify for certain tax breaks, including property taxes.
Another issue is whether the marijuana sales will be subject to the state's sales tax. And they will look at the possible impact on state revenues from an increase in medical tourists who might come to the state if the treatment is available.
The economists also will be estimating the number of Floridians who might use medical marijuana.
One preliminary estimate shows that, based on California's experience, where 1.46 percent of the population uses medical marijuana, about 287,000 Floridians might use the drug. But if Florida is more like Colorado, where 2.11 percent are using medical marijuana, more than 417,000 Floridians might participate.
If the group is successful in getting enough signatures to get on the 2014 ballot, it will face opposition from groups opposing medical marijuana, although it has been approved by voters in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
The St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation warned earlier this month that the amendment would allow "abuses" in distributing medical marijuana.
Calvina Fay, executive director of the foundation, said distributing medical marijuana would be different from physicians dispensing other drugs through prescriptions. She said the amendment, if approved by 60 percent of Florida's voters, would allow physicians to "certify" marijuana use, rather than writing a formal prescription.
"This is pretty much the same unrestrictive initiative that we have seen in states like California and Colorado," Fay said in a statement. "In fact, in states where marijuana has been legalized for so-called medical purposes, the law has been abused."
She said the overwhelming majority of users of medical marijuana use it for "common ailments" such as back pain and muscle spasms and not for "debilitating diseases" such as cancer or ALS.
"If legalizing marijuana was truly about the sick, it would not be done through referenda," Fay said. "Residents of Florida need to examine the language in this initiative with a fine-tooth comb before taking a position."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.