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Pinellas sheriff wants legislative fix to medical pot, not an amendment

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wants the Florida Legislature to figure something out when it comes to medical marijuana.

During a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon Thursday, marijuana reform was the talk of the day. Gualtieri was asked several times about medical marijuana and once about recreational.

He told the group of about 50 Tiger Bay members and guests he was actively supportive of the state’s Charlotte’s Web bill that passed during the 2014 Legislature. Charlotte’s Web is a strain of marijuana cultivated into an oil. It’s low in THC, the chemical property that gets users high, but high in the therapeutic chemical CBD.

The so-called Charlotte’s Web cannabis oil has been shown to reduce or even eliminate seizures in people and children who suffer from chronic epilepsy.

That law is still tied up in regulatory red tape.

As for medical marijuana, Gualtieri said he supports it, but only under limited circumstances.

“What I do have a huge issue with is it in smokeable form,” Gualtieri said. “That’s not for medical purposes.”

Gualtieri, unlike many critics of medical marijuana initiatives, argued the drug does have medical relevance. He noted the existence of FDA-approved synthetic THC used to treat various ailments like cancer, chronic pain and stomach problems.

But it seems Gualtieri won’t be supporting a constitutional amendment if one winds up on the ballot in 2016. John Morgan’s group behind the 2014 medical marijuana ballot initiative, United for Care, is already taking steps to obtain petition signatures to have a second go at.

“I do believe it has no place in the Florida Constitution,” Gualtieri said of a ballot initiative. Instead, he wants the issue addressed legislatively.

His lack of support for a medical marijuana constitutional effort is timely considering his name will also be appearing on the 2016 ballot. Gualtieri shot down rumors that he may run for state attorney against incumbent Bernie McCabe.

“I have no desire to do anything other than be Pinellas County sheriff,” he said.

The 2014 medical pot effort was narrowly defeated thanks to a massive push from the opposition. The vast majority of money spent in the “No on 2” campaign — $5 million –- came from Las Vegas Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

When asked whether the potential for heaps of Adelson money for a re-election campaign played into his positions, Gualtieri said it didn’t.

“It’s about doing what’s right,” he said.

During questions Gualtieri spoke of several areas where the agency, the 15th largest in the nation, could use additional funding. That included money for new cruisers, crisis intervention training for officers and better mental health programs. Someone asked Gualtieri if tax revenue benefitting his agency could convince him to eventually support recreational marijuana.

“All you have to do is look at what happened in Colorado,” Gualtieri said. “Underground marijuana increased because people don’t want to pay taxes on it.”

According to the Tax Foundation, Colorado’s black market for pot is estimated at about 6 percent of total demand. The state has approved a reduction in sales tax on legal marijuana from 10 percent to 8 percent and will have a one-day tax holiday where users can purchase the drug tax-free in September. The idea is to reduce black-market sales by making legal purchases cheaper.

But an underground market isn’t the only reason Gualtieri opposes recreational use.

“We have an addiction problem in this nation,” Gualtieri said. “The stuff that is legal is highly abused in and of itself.”

Gualtieri said alcohol isn’t even managed well and the only way to get to the core of addiction problems plaguing the state is to increase education and prevention.

In a non-pot related question from St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton regarding juvenile arrest rates in the county, Gualtieri said he supported diversion programs to avoid saddling youngsters with criminal records. He said he not only supports the program for certain first-time felony offenses, he also thinks some felonies should apply and the leniency should be used in certain second and third offenses as well.

“They all don’t need to go into the juvenile justice system,” Gualtieri said. “Every situation should be evaluated on its merits.”

There’s also a financial benefit to keeping kids out of jail. Gualtieri said the county pays $250 a day to incarcerate kids in the county’s juvenile detention center. By comparison, adults in jail cost only about $123 a day.

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 Patch.com 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 janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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