Note: Jim Manfre will discuss medical marijuana on Free For All Friday with David Ayres Friday morning, Feb. 10, on WNZF radio. You can listen here.
By Jim Manfre
For thousands of years marijuana was used medicinally throughout the world. In North America its hemp variety was grown by the Jamestown colonists in the early 17th century, and was among George Washington’s chief crops in the 18th and 19th, as it was for many American farmers who grew it for its many industrial uses such as rope or fiber. States began regulating—but not outlawing—marijuana in the early 20th century, with the first federal law making marijuana possession illegal passing in 1937. Exceptions were made for medical marijuana.
California began the trend of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in 1996. Since then 27 states have followed suit, among them Florida, and five, so far, have legalized recreational marijuana.
Florida began its journey with medical marijuana in 2014 when a proposed amendment to the constitution failed by 2 percentage points, largely due to the opposition of the Florida Sheriffs Association. At the time, I did not fully support the amendment out of deference to the Association. After the amendment failed, I worked with the FSA to create a legislative compromise that satisfied the concerns of sheriffs and that would be was acceptable to the proponents of the amendment, such as its chief proponent, the attorney John Morgan. The compromise failed in the Legislature, was placed on the ballot again as Amendment 2, and passed with 71 percent approval. Even in Clay County, one of the most heavily Republican counties in the state, it passed by 71 per cent. Almost all demographics voted for it in high numbers.
Amendment 2 permits medical marijuana to be prescribed as treatment for cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, PTSD, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions. The delivery system for medical marijuana is permitted through capsules, drops, oils or inhalators.
The Florida legislature in the session beginning in March is considering bills enacting the intent of voters. The Department of Health must within six months pass rules and regulations regarding growing, processing and distribution of medical marijuana. In addition, it must create licensing requirements for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. Numerous counties and cities have imposed moratoriums on marijuana businesses as they prepare to pass zoning laws governing where cultivation and distribution locations will be placed—based on what strictures the state hands down.
Many of the issues confronting state regulators, lawmakers, the medical community, the medical marijuana industry and counties and municipalities were discussed at the Florida Association of Counties Conference on medical marijuana this past Saturday (Feb. 4), which I attended.
The most significant issues centered on vertical permitting of medical marijuana companies (meaning a licensed company would grow, process and distribute product), how many statewide licenses would be permitted (currently the number is seven), the preemption of state government on all areas of licensing other than zoning to counties and municipalities (which means that local governments could not override state law), a medical registry (similar to the pain pill registry) to control unlawful prescriptions, and law enforcement’s role.
It was clear that although there was a lot of work to be done, several key principles were agreed upon by most presenters and attendees.
First, Florida should avoid the pitfalls of other states in implementing the Amendment by studying what went right or wrong in states that have already legalized medical marijuana.
Second, rules, regulations and the state’s preemption in licensing should be simple, clear and uniform so as not to create confusion for the regulators and the industry.
Finally, the current amount of licenses issued to cultivate, process and distribute medical marijuana is not sufficient for the projected market in Florida and should be expanded.
I have been asked repeatedly why was I the only sheriff or law enforcement manager to endorse and actively work for a legislative compromise and for Amendment 2. The answer is three-fold: ideological, personal and the common good. Although I am not presently a proponent of legalizing marijuana, I do not see the connections to crime and addiction that others have touted as a reason to keep marijuana illegal. I believe law enforcement spends too much time in marijuana enforcement rather than on the more lethal opioids that are killing people daily, especially prescription opioids. I believe in decriminalizing marijuana through juvenile and adult civil citation laws.
The personal reason is that my Mom as a result of breast cancer went through rigorous and multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Although the cancer went into remission, the nausea and side effects resulted in her physical and mental debilitation. It is my hope that medical marijuana will help cancer patients and their families in Florida avoid these painful experiences.
Finally, if I had any doubts about openly supporting the legalization of medical marijuana, it has been overcome by the many interactions I have had with ordinary people whose lives have been changed dramatically through use of medical marijuana. Of the dozens and dozens of these encounters, the one that stands out most is a gentleman who came up to me in a wheelchair. Surprisingly, he stood up gingerly, hugged me and thanked me for my support for the Amendment. He related that he was a veteran of the Iraq war and was suffering from PTSD and the pain from an IED explosion. Through use of opioids prescribed for his conditions, he became bedridden and developed walking difficulties. Out of desperation, he went to California and reluctantly tried medical marijuana. He had not used it in the past. His most severe symptoms subsided, and he was beginning to walk again without pain.
I understand that for many the legalization of medical marijuana is a bridge too far. But I ask for compassion and understanding for the many thousands it has helped live a better life. I know there is a lot more work to be done to implement the intent of the Amendment, but when do 71 percent of Floridians agree on anything? Last week’s Florida Association of Counties conference helped show the way.
Jim Manfre, an attorney and Palm Coast resident, was the Flagler County Sheriff from 2001 to 2005 and from 2013 to 2017.