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Medical Marijuana Tangles Up Florida Supreme Court Justices In Weeds of Words

| December 5, 2013

Attorney John Morgan, a chief backer of a proposed amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, speaks to reporters outside the Florida Supreme Court after justices heard arguments on whether to allow the wording of the proposal to make it to the November 2014 ballot. (Brandon Larrabee)

Attorney John Morgan, a chief backer of a proposed amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, speaks to reporters outside the Florida Supreme Court after justices heard arguments on whether to allow the wording of the proposal to make it to the November 2014 ballot. (Brandon Larrabee)

The Florida Supreme Court tried Thursday to cut through the smoke surrounding a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana, with justices set to issue an opinion on whether the ballot initiative can go before voters in 2014.

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During oral arguments between supporters and opponents of the measure, the court’s two most conservative justices seemed openly hostile to the proposal. But the fate of the measure could be decided by whether the five more liberal members of the bench decide to back the amendment or not.

The idea of medical marijuana technically isn’t at issue in the case. Instead, Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislative leaders and medical, law enforcement and business groups argue that the ballot title and summary that would appear on the ballot could deceive voters about the scope of the amendment.

They say the ballot language, written by United for Care: People United for Medical Marijuana, wrongly suggests that only people with “debilitating diseases” could get the green leafy substance. Instead, doctors would have a much freer hand to prescribe pot.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston, one of the more conservative members of the bench, appeared receptive to that argument.

“The way I read it, it would seem to be if a student’s just stressed over exams, and they go in and see a doctor, and they said, ‘I’m really stressed out.’ (The doctor says,) ‘Well, I’ve got something I can help you with,’ and prescribes marijuana. Wouldn’t that be included in this?” Polston asked.

Supporters of the proposal deny that the language is that sweeping. Instead, they say, Florida doctors would have to weigh the risks of the medication against the benefits to the patient.

“The sponsors were focused on two things: the patient and how best to make that determination for a patient, which is very much focused on physician decision,” said Jon Mills, representing the amendment’s backers. “So a list (of conditions) alone would not be adequate.”

The amendment is the brainchild of Orlando attorney John Morgan, who says he has poured $1 million of his own money into the effort. The Florida Division of Elections says it has verified 136,458 of the 683,149 signatures that the measure needs to be placed on the ballot for 2014.

Much of the discussion centered on the difference between “debilitating diseases,” which will appear in the ballot summary, and “debilitating medical condition,” the term that appears in the amendment.

“You don’t even have to have a disease to get marijuana under this amendment,” said Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who argued the case for opponents Thursday.

But while Justice Barbara Pariente suggested that the amendment might be imprecise, she seemed skeptical about the idea that the ballot language was misleading.

“It seems that the problem may be in the drafting of the amendment, as opposed to in the title and summary,” she said. “How do we deal with that?”

Lawyers and the justices also tangled over whether the ballot statement that the amendment “[d]oes not authorize violations of federal law” might suggest that possessing marijuana would not be a violation of federal law, something that is false. Mills suggested that it was instead making clear that the state amendment would not change whether pot was illegal at the federal level.

“It’s obvious that the state of Florida cannot change federal law,” Justice Charles Canady retorted. “Wouldn’t you think that that’s obvious?”

Speaking with reporters after the session, Morgan expressed confidence that he would be able to gather enough valid signatures by the Feb. 1 deadline to make the ballot if justices approved the language. And he said that no matter the outcome of the case, victory is inevitable.

“Everybody here knows that one day medical marijuana is going to be legal in Florida,” he said. “We all know that. … Is it going to be 2014 or ’24? It’s going to happen.”

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

The proposed Medical Marijuana Amendment includes the following title and summary as required by Section 101.161(1), Florida Statutes:

BALLOT TITLE: Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions.

BALLOT SUMMARY: Allows the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician and allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not authorize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.

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10 Responses for “Medical Marijuana Tangles Up Florida Supreme Court Justices In Weeds of Words”

  1. knowa says:

    I think Florida Voters are aware that Cannabis is illegal under Federal Law and that a Doctor is not able to determine if a safe effective medicine would benefit a patient is ludicrous. Who are these people against the 82% who want to vote.

  2. Mario says:

    Where do I sign? This is the first important step at decimalizing pot use. To think that we still have people who are arrested, fined and incarcerated for using Pot in 2013 is astonishing. And we need the Supreme Court of FL to decide on verbiage … really?! Just copy CA law, as they’ve been doing it for a long time (I voted yes around 97) and it seems to work there just fine. It’s about time FL got onboard with the 21st century. If you’re allowed to consume alcohol, than you should be allowed to smoke a joint (under doctor’s care of course), without being paranoid (which I’ve heard happens). Would love to have a medical marijuana dispensary on Palm Coast Pkwy! Or, maybe one would spring up on Florida Park Drive, cause stoned people drive a whole lot slower. Or, maybe it could be the first real store in Town Center next to the $9M + City Hall. That way, you could get stoned before you paid your property tax bill. Would make dishing over all that money feel a whole lot better. LOL

  3. Curt says:

    What is there to argue Pam Bondi other than the drafting of the amendment ?

    Pharmaceutical heroin i.e. “oxycodone / oxycontin v. marijuana” people don’t overdose on pot nor do they need to be stabilized on methadone because the DEA has made it where legitimate patients can’t even get a RX filled ?

    Great story.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Studies prove that Marijuana is not physically addicting. You can not overdose and die using Marijuana. If used correctly, this is a far better alternative to our current day, common medicines i.e. Xanax, Lortabs, Oxycodone etc. Teenagers and young adults are going to experiment with more things than we realize. I would much rather a child steal their Grandparents pot rather than their Grandparents pain medication. Legalize it! Where can I sign the petition???

  5. A.S.F. says:

    Legalizing any drug is a complicated process. Let’s get our ducks in a row before we vote to legalize marijuana. The consequences should be thought out and checks and balances put in place to forestall potential problems.. How will we police the proper dispensing of this within the larger community? We already see the effects of “pill mills” and they dispense “legal” drugs but do it in an improper manner. How do we intend to deal with the issue of people driving under the influence of medical marijuana? I can assure you, marijuana does incapacitate drivers. Will doctors be able to recognize when patients are beginning to get habituated to the drug? While I do not believe marijuana is “addicting” in the oh-my-god-without-my-marijuana-I-need-to-go-into-detox sense, I believe some people may be more vulnerable to becoming dependent in other ways on substances they may begin taking for very legitimate reasons. If their usage begins to spiral out of control, Doctors should be training to recognize the signs of abuse and how to handle it. Also, I’d like to know more about the possible short-term and long-term respiratory effects of medical marijuana and their potential neurological effects on memory, especially when it comes to children, young adults and the elderly.

  6. Geezer says:

    Get your petition.

    For the people!

  7. Raul Troche says:

    Marijuana use should not be a crime in the first place. What happened to life, livery, and the pursuit of happiness? God says that the leaves are MADE for the healing of the nations.

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