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Could changes in proposed medical marijuana initiative see Bob Buckhorn soften his opposition on the issue?

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Bob Buckhorn alienated some Democrats going into the 2014 election — and not just because of his public refusal to back Charlie Crist, the Florida Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee (he later said he had voted for Crist).

The Tampa Mayor also opposed the proposed medical marijuana constitutional amendment, which most polls showed Democrats strongly supported. The ballot measure generated almost 58 percent of the popular vote, a clear mandate, but short of the 60 percent required to become the law in Florida.

United for Care, the same group led by Orlando attorney John Morgan, is back again pushing to get the measure on the 2016 ballot. The Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language last month, but the group is still working hard to secure the 683,149 validated petitions needed by February 1.

Buckhorn says that he while he will always oppose the legalization of pot, he now says he’s “willing to take a look” at the medical marijuana measure that may be on the 2016 ballot.

“I know they’ve tightened up and made it more restrictive, in terms of who can sell it and who can buy it, so that’s a move in the right direction,” Buckhorn told this reporter on Sunday at the New Mt. Zion Missionary Progressive Baptist Church, after participating in an event with Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Congresswoman Kathy Castor to get people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act.

There are, in fact, several changes to tighten the law up.

One of the criticisms of the 2014 measure was that immunity granted to employees of medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTC’s) was too broad. The newly proposed language says that immunities do not apply to instances on negligence or malfeasance.

In terms of who is eligible to buy medical pot, doctors now must receive parental consent before issuing a medical marijuana recommendation to a minor. United for Care’s Ben Pollara writes in an email that “this was already a standard medical practice requirement,
but the law now states so clearly.” Also, the Department of Health is now also required to verify the written parental consent before issuing an ID card to a minor.

There are also changes in regards to caregivers (such as a licensed nurse, hospice employee or designated patient representative).

The 2014 amendment said caregivers would be allowed to assist no more than five patients at a time to obtain medical marijuana. The proposed 2016 amendment says the number of patients a caregiver may serve is now up to the Department of Health.

The new language also says specifically that the Health Dept. may conduct background checks on caregivers and set other restrictions on who can and cannot be a caregiver under the law. “It was always our position that this was well within the department’s purview but it is now written as such in black and white,” Pollara writes.

Will those changes be enough for the Tampa measure to back the measure?

Pollara says he hopes so, saying that as a longtime supporter and friend of the mayor, he was “surprised and dismayed” at his opposition in 2014.

“There are thousands of Tampa residents who could see relief under this law and I’ve always known Bob to be a man of compassion,” he writes.

For the past eight months, the Buckhorn administration has been working proactively to begin decriminalizing the penalties for possession of marijuana, something the City Council now says they will discuss formally next month.

The mayor says that the current penalties for possessing small amounts of pot are too extreme. His administration has floated the idea of reducing fines to $70 for people  possessing up to 20 grams of marijuana, or about three-quarters of an ounce, with the fines increasing for repeat offenses.

“Those arrests set their lives on a course that are almost irretrievable, so we think that a more rational approach to it, going the citation route, obviously escalating if there are frequent violations, is probably the right thing to do,” he said on Sunday.

Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach all began citation programs in the past year, and there are currently hopes that Pinellas County will as well.

Buckhorn isn’t the only high-profile Democrat who opposes medical marijuana in Florida; South Florida Congresswoman and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also does so. That opposition, along with many other positions, has many national Democrats to call for her ouster as DNC Chair.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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