At community forum in St. Pete about Amendment 2, truth appears to be subjective

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The Truth about Marijuana forum in Childs Park last night was a sprinkling of truth with a dash of propaganda. And one could look at it that way regardless of where they stand on the Amendment 2 medical marijuana issue.

On one hand, two proponents for the legal use of marijuana as medicine fielded questions from a crowd of mostly Amendment 2 supporters. On the other, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri took a lashing from the group, several questioning whether he even knew what he was talking about.

Dr. Gregory Gerdeman, assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College, offered a scientific peak into the benefits of medical marijuana.

“I’ve become a profound advocate for the use of herbal cannabis as medicine in no small part because I‘ve met so many patients who have found rapid and effective relief when other medications have not and I’ve seen them face arrest and the indignity of being a criminal for using a plant that’s been used safely as a medicine for at least 2,500 years.”

Gerdeman countered many of Gualtieri’s arguments. Except for one.

“There is addiction to marijuana, and a lot of proponents sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by saying it doesn’t exist. It does. It’s quite unusual, for the number of people who use it, but it does exist, and we should have an open minded conversation about that.”

But according to Gerdeman, that’s all the more reason to legalize the herb for medical use. He argues that because marijuana is not accepted as medicine in the state of Florida, most doctors don’t get any training on possible benefits. If Amendment 2 passes, Gerdeman said doctors would have to undergo special training and continuing education to ensure they are properly prescribing the drug.

That flies contrary to what Sherriff Gualtieri argues. He says it’s not so much that he doesn’t believe in the therapeutic properties in cannabis.

“If somebody is truly at the end of life, I don’t care what they do to take themselves out of pain,” he said.

Instead he thinks the Amendment language itself is too vague. That one argument was the crux of all others. For example, pot shops on every corner just like Starbucks, pedaling weed to youngsters because parental consent won’t be required and allowing doctors to set up the ganja equivalent of pill mills to dispense grass to anyone with a minor headache. That’s some pretty scary stuff.

Medical pot activist Kurt Donley disagrees with Gualtieri, points out that the terms of Amendment 2 haven’t been laid out. There’s a limited number of words that can be used on a ballot referendum – certainly not enough to determine who can distribute medical marijuana to whom and what criteria doctors have to follow to write a script for it. Claims that medical marijuana is going to become some sort of legal dope slinging ring where any five-year old can pedal his little ball of cuteness down to the local Rx pot sold here shop with a prescription he somehow acquired without his parents consent, well, those are just simply unfounded. Could it happen? Sure. There’s money to be made here and certainly there will be people looking to profit. But to the fear-mongering level opponents are all up in arms about? Probably not.

“It’s a constitutional amendment because the Florida legislature refused to work on it,” Donley said. “You know these guys are going to make the worst most restrictive rules on the planet. So those are garbage arguments.”

Donley, who ditched his usual t-shirt, shorts and flip-flop attire for a snazzy suit, stayed calm. But not as calm as his Eckerd biology counterpart. That’s because for Donley, it’s personal. He suffered a stroke about 5-years ago. Since then, medical marijuana has aided in his recovery. He claims it got him back on his feet so fast he was used as a source of inspiration for other recovering stroke victims. And he made that admission sitting directly next to the head of the biggest law enforcement agency in the county.

Why? Because Donley lives in Florida, but according to legal documents, he’s a California resident and medical marijuana cardholder. He’d really like to pay Florida taxes, but, for right now, that would make him a criminal. Donnely alleges that the only reason law enforcement groups and many leaders including Gualtieri remain hell-bent on keeping what many see as a harmless substance illegal is to make money. But he’s also concerned about what he calls the 6-1 disparity where for every one white person who is arrested for pot, 6 African-Americans are hauled in for the minor drug offense.

“All it is is an easy way to arrest blacks,” Donley preached. “It’s the last Jim Crow law on the books.”

Gualtieri argued that medical marijuana already exists – in two ways. One, the legislature passed and Governor approved use of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a strain of marijuana high in CBD, but low in THC. THC is the part of pot that makes users high. The strain is then cultivated into an oil and taken orally to reduce, or in some cases, eliminate seizures. There’s also Marinol. That’s an FDA approved drug that mimics the effects of THC which is what dulls pain and stimulates appetite.

Author’s note: a previous version of this story misquoted Dr. Gerdeman as saying “It is addictive,” he said. “That’s where a lot of proponents shoot themselves in the foot. It’s unlikely, but it can be addictive.”

The quote was transcribed incorrectly. The complete quote, “There is addiction to marijuana, and a lot of proponents sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by saying it doesn’t exist. It does. It’s quite unusual, for the number of people who use it, but it does exist, and we should have an open minded conversation about that,” is accurately updated in the revised version of this story.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email