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‘Reefer Madness’ returns to Tallahassee

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The forces against this year’s medical marijuana initiative lined up a one-two punch Friday against the proposed state constitutional amendment.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Ken Bell provided the legal jab, saying marijuana doesn’t belong in the state’s chief governing document. He addressed reporters at a press conference in Tallahassee.

“You create a fundamental right that the Legislature is very constrained in its ability to deal with in terms of any unintended consequences,” said Bell, a conservative who sat on the court from 2003-08. 

State Sen. Jack Latvala — the Clearwater Republican set to be Appropriations Committee chair — delivered the moral cross, saying enshrining marijuana in the constitution is just plain wrong.

“I want to be a little more personal,” Latvala said. “I don’t want this to come to Florida … I just see too many opportunities for abuse.”

Backers of the broader use of medical marijuana are trying again in 2016, after a similar amendment failed narrowly at the polls two years ago. The committee behind it is again called United for Care. 

After enjoying broad support, it only got 58 percent of the vote — just shy of the 60 percent required for passage of an amendment — after a negative ad campaign largely financed by Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

The latest amendment now is polling between 65-75 percent.

The initiative is again backed by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who has spent millions of dollars on the campaigns. Morgan has spoken publicly about his interest in the cause: His brother’s need for marijuana to ease crippling pain.

But the opposition continues to rally against what former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford called “the Coloradofication of Florida, where the end game is a pot shop on every street corner.”

Florida already allows by statute the low-THC, or non-euphoric, marijuana, mostly for children with severe seizures and spasms, and the higher-THC strain approved this year for terminally ill patients.

But Latvala and others continue to raise concerns, for instance, that “Amendment 2 will bring kid-friendly pot candy to Florida,” a claim just rated “half true” by PolitiFact.

“I just think it’s wrong,” Latvala said. “I’m concerned that there won’t be the ability for local governments to regulate where these bud shops or pot shops are located … Most of all, we have no scientific evidence that there’s any medicinal value for marijuana.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse“the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not recognized or approved the marijuana plant as medicine.”

“However, scientific study of the chemicals in marijuana … has led to two FDA-approved medications that contain (those) chemicals in pill form. Continued research may lead to more medications,” its website adds. 

United for Care campaign manager Ben Pollara said in an email, “If the Legislature had done their job in the first place, Sen. Latvala wouldn’t have an amendment to oppose. They didn’t.

“The current law isn’t even being accessed by many of the families it was narrowly written to help,” Pollara said. “If Sen. Latvala is displeased that this issue is now before voters as a constitutional amendment, perhaps he should reflect on why the Legislature failed to enact the people’s will.”

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia “now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but selling marijuana is still a federal crime.

The Obama administration, however, has given guidance to federal prosecutors to not charge those, particularly “the seriously ill and their caregivers,” who distribute and use medical marijuana under a state law.

The No on 2 campaign’s website is here. The website for the organization behind this year’s amendment is here.

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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