Pot Amendment: For Debilitating Diseases or an Open Door to Full Marijuana Legalization?
FlaglerLive | October 13, 2014
For former House Speaker Jon Mills, crafting a constitutional amendment that would allow doctors to order pot for extremely ill patients was an opportunity for the onetime University of Florida law-school dean to flex his legal know-how.
But the academic exercise became more personal a year after he started work on Amendment 2, one of three constitutional proposals going before voters this year.
Mills, diagnosed with lymphoma in 2013, is one of the amendment proponents debating the merits of allowing physicians to order marijuana for patients like him.
Opponents of the measure, led by the Florida Sheriffs Association, argue that the proposal is riddled with loopholes that will result in “a joint in every backpack” in Florida schools, legitimize drug dealers and enable doctors to order weed for a sore throat.
After his diagnosis, Mills underwent painful radiation treatment. His doctor ordered powerful narcotics, but, after taking just one, Mills said he decided he would rather suffer the pain than the discombobulation caused by oxycodone.
“I tried it and I hated it,” Mills, a Democrat who served as House speaker in the late 1980s and is now the director of the University of Florida Center for Governmental Responsibility.
The amendment would allow doctors to order marijuana for patients with debilitating conditions listed in the full text of the proposal — such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C — or “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
That’s a major sticking point for opponents, who use Mills’ own words last year before the Florida Supreme Court to poke holes in the proposal.
Justices asked Mills to explain what patients might tell doctors trying to determine whether their “other conditions” qualify for the marijuana treatment.
“I have throat pain, I can’t sleep, I’m having a problem eating …” a patient might say, Mills told the justices in December.
A clip of Mills’s response is highlighted in one of the many videos released by Drug Free Florida, a political committee funded heavily by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s pumped $4 million into fighting the proposed amendment.
“Those aren’t debilitating diseases. This is how they created the pot-for-anyone-who-wants-it loophole,” an ad asserts.
Mills said his comments were taken out of context and that the conditions he described — extreme throat pain and inability to sleep or eat — were his own.
“That wasn’t an abstract concept. That was my personal experience. I guarantee you the inability to eat or sleep was debilitating,” he said.
In a 4-3 opinion, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with Mills, deciding that the “other conditions” language in Amendment 2 is not misleading to voters.
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a former president of the the Florida Sheriffs Association, pooh-poohed Mills’ arguments and the Supreme Court ruling. Seven former Supreme Court justices have joined the coalition fighting the measure, Judd noted.
“What else is Jon Mills going to say because he wrote it? He knows good and well that the loopholes are there because he wrote the loopholes into it. For him to say otherwise is disingenuous. They are there. They’re clear and they’re convincing,” Judd said. “Amendment 2 is not just about the very sick and the debilitated. If it were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s about the loopholes. It’s all about the loopholes. It’s just a bunch of hooey.”
Opponents of the proposal like Judd offer a parade of horribles encountered by California and Oregon after legalizing medical marijuana. According to Judd, the average patient in California is a 32-year-old white male.
“That’s not a sick population,” he said.
The pot proposal has created a dilemma for Republican leaders. Making medical marijuana legal received broad support from Florida voters, including Republicans, in a variety of polls earlier this year. But that support has dropped in the wake of television attack ads, giving hope to opponents that the proposal will fail to garner the 60 percent support of voters required for any constitutional amendment to pass in Florida.
GOP legislative leaders, including outgoing House Speaker Will Weatherford, have lined up against the amendment. In a maneuver aimed in part at curtailing support for the proposal, the Legislature this spring legalized strains of pot that purportedly do not get users high but are believed to alleviate life-threatening seizures in children with epilepsy.
That new law, backed by the sheriffs association, would allow doctors to order cannabis that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, for patients who suffer from severe muscle spasms — like the epileptic children — or cancer. This year was the first that the GOP-controlled Legislature gave any marijuana-related bills a vetting.
The proposal before voters on Nov. 4 would also allow caregivers to administer medical marijuana to up to five patients and require the Department of Health to issue identification cards to patients eligible for the treatment and to caregivers. Also, it would create a database of patients and register medical marijuana treatment centers, which would distribute the pot. The amendment would give the department six months to implement rules and nine months to get the program up and running.
Some of the most-recent rows over the proposal focus not on its merits but on the personalities involved.
John Morgan, an Orlando trial attorney who has spent nearly $4 million of his own money getting the proposal onto the November ballot and pushing its passage, has become a flashpoint in the debate over the measure. Morgan — Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist’s boss — has been accused of maneuvering the amendment onto the November ballot to propel Crist’s chances for victory.
But Morgan insists that he threw his support behind the measure because of his father, who suffered from cancer and emphysema, and his brother Tim, partially paralyzed due to injuries sustained as a teen-aged lifeguard when he dove into concrete pylons while trying to rescue a swimmer. Joining his brother in promoting the proposal, the wheelchair-bound Tim Morgan is open about his use of marijuana to curb the pain and muscle spasms caused by his injuries.
In one of many appearances around the state, John Morgan was caught on tape delivering a boozy, expletive-laced monologue to what appears to be a crowd of young supporters at a bar after a rally in the Lakeland area.
The anti-Amendment 2 group quickly used the tape to blast Morgan and the amendment, and the Republican Party of Florida also jumped on the attack, linking Morgan to Crist.
The brash Morgan accuses Judd and other medical marijuana naysayers of using a “1950s, reefer madness mentality” to plant fear in the minds of voters.
He scoffs when asked if passage will result in “a joint in every backpack,” something Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford frequently asserts. The proposal does not restrict doctors from ordering marijuana as a treatment for patients under the age of 18, which opponents say is yet another loophole.
“Sheriff Rutherford doesn’t understand reality. And reality is that children have marijuana now. There’s a school in Orlando where it’s so bad that they’re now drug testing the children and if you fail it twice you’re kicked out,” Morgan said.
Like other drugs, minors could not get orders for weed filled without their parents’ permission, amendment proponents say.
But Judd argues that parents who want pot for themselves could get a doctor to order it for their children, and he also refers to medical research showing that marijuana can harm developing brains.
He rattles off a laundry list of other loopholes in the amendment, each rejected by Mills or Morgan. Both sides trot out statistics and medical experts to support their positions.
Like Morgan, Judd also uses his personal experience in the effort to kill the amendment, which he calls “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Legalizing pot will lead to more drug addiction, which destroys families, Judd said, describing a typical conversation he has had with parents over his four decades in law enforcement.
“They say, ‘Sheriff, I’ve ran through my insurance money. I’ve ran through all my savings. My child’s out on the street some place tonight and I’m scared they’re going to die. Would you please go find them and arrest them because at least I’ll know they’re safe in jail?'” Judd said. “You don’t need many of those phone calls to have your fill of them for a lifetime, and I get them on a normal basis. And if there’s anything I can do to stop someone from being addicted to marijuana or any drug, if there’s anything I can do to stop that to help comfort and care for those families. I’m going to do it.”
But for Morgan and Mills, giving patients the option of a less-addictive treatment — pot — than strong narcotics like OxyContin is a no-brainer.
“Right now you can go to a doctor for a hangnail and a doctor can prescribe you OxyContin. A crooked doctor is as bad as a crooked lawyer and as bad as a crooked cop. If a crooked doctor was going to prescribe medical marijuana or OxyContin for a hangnail, which one would you rather him prescribe? Which one is the lesser of two evils? One kills 16,000 people a year and hooks hundreds of thousands and destroys millions of lives. The other hasn’t ever killed a person,” Morgan said. “I’m a heck of a lot more worried about the pharmaceuticals that we take that are poisonous.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida