To supporters, the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida is clear.
“The proposed medical marijuana amendment poses a single and unified question to Florida voters,” attorneys for a group backing the measure said in a legal brief Friday. “Should an individual with a debilitating disease or medical condition, who has been so diagnosed by a licensed Florida physician, be lawfully allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes so long as they meet a number of conditions?”
But to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Republican legislative leaders and some politically powerful opponents, the proposal isn’t clear enough — and should not be allowed on the November 2014 ballot.
“The proposal hides the fact that the amendment would make Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states, allowing use for limitless ‘other conditions’ specified by any physician,” Bondi’s office said in another brief Friday. “With no ‘condition’ off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age. But rather than tell voters of this extraordinary scope, the summary uses language to prey on voters’ understandable sympathies for Florida’s most vulnerable patients — those suffering ‘debilitating diseases.’ ”
The Florida Supreme Court will try to sort through the conflicting arguments during a hearing Dec. 5, a key step in deciding whether voters will see the issue next fall.
Justices are not supposed to consider the merits of constitutional amendments, such as whether decriminalizing medical marijuana would be a good thing for the state. Instead, they look at the ballot title and summary — the wording that voters see at the polls — to determine whether the proposed constitutional changes are accurately described. Also, justices look to make sure the proposals deal with single subjects.
Even if the Supreme Court signs off on the proposal, that does not mean the medical-marijuana amendment will go on the ballot. The group spearheading the proposal, People United for Medical Marijuana, still would need to get 683,149 valid petition signatures.
Bondi and Republican legislative leaders gained more legal firepower Friday when a coalition of influential groups filed a brief with the Supreme Court seeking to keep the measure off the ballot. Those groups include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.
The briefs outline the key issues in the legal battle. Perhaps the biggest issue focuses on whether the wording accurately describes the breadth of the proposed changes.
The summary says, in part, that the amendment would allow the “medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.” The full text of the proposed amendment defines a debilitating medical condition by specifying diseases such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis and also includes “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
Bondi’s office has focused on that final part of the definition, contending that it would open up “unfettered” authority for physicians to approve the use of marijuana. The attorney general’s brief Friday said voters would not know that from the wording of the ballot title and summary.
“Although Florida’s Constitution allows sponsors to propose such an expansive and permissive marijuana law, it also requires that they inform voters of the proposal’s ‘true meaning and ramifications.’ … This summary does not do that,” the brief said. “Instead, it promises a narrow and limited marijuana program — the precise opposite of what the amendment would deliver.”
But attorneys for People United for Medical Marijuana wrote that the attorney general’s office has a “flawed interpretation of the initiative” that does not take into consideration a series of requirements that a patient would have to meet before receiving medical marijuana. Along with having a debilitating medical condition, those requirements would include undergoing a physical examination, getting a written certification from a physician and obtaining an identification card from the Florida Department of Health before being able to buy marijuana from a “registered treatment facility.”
“(The) medical marijuana amendment does not attempt to define all possible debilitating conditions, nor should it because the Constitution is a document for now and the future,” the group’s brief said. “The text of the Constitution should not try to list all debilitating diseases and conditions, but should and does allow proper scope for medical judgment.”
Another potentially important issue before the Supreme Court could be wording related to federal law. The ballot summary says the amendment “applies only to Florida law” and does “not authorize violations of federal law.”
Bondi’s office contends that the language is misleading because it suggests that federal law allows medical marijuana.
“For decades, marijuana use — including for medical purposes — has been a federal criminal offense,” the attorney general’s brief said.
But supporters of the amendment have a completely different interpretation of the language, saying it places voters “on notice” that the proposal does not authorize violation of federal marijuana laws.
“The nature of federal interaction with state laws allowing medical marijuana, especially in the enforcement area, is evolving at this time,” the supporters’ brief said. “However, Florida citizens are entitled to change Florida law, as many other states have done. The title and summary for the medical marijuana amendment place voters on notice that any change provided by this amendment affects only Florida law, and that federal laws are unaffected by this change.”
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida