PANAMA CITY -- Florida's joint is nearly lit on medical marijuana's legalization, but one cliffhanger remains -- the state Supreme Court.
The political process could prove to be the measure's undoing, despite the ballot initiative's 900,000 signatures and support from 82 percent of state's voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Attorney General Pam Bondi challenged the state constitutional amendment's ballot language in the Florida Supreme Court, saying it was overly broad and misleading. The court has not ruled on the case; the earliest it could return a decision is Thursday. If the court rules in Bondi's favor, the initiative likely would be pulled from the 2014 ballot.
Bondi has actively cracked down on drugs during her time in office, fighting pill mills and synthetic marijuana. Because she oversees state law enforcement, she also may have concerns about the legal implications of a medical marijuana law, said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor.
Similarly, Gov. Rick Scott, who like Bondi is a Republican, opposes the constitutional amendment. He's repeatedly taken anti-drug stances since his 2010 election, pushing for welfare-recipient and state-employee drug testing. His likely 2014 gubernatorial opposition, former governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, supports medical marijuana legalization.
"This is something that could become an issue in the gubernatorial race," Smith said. "If public opinion continues to surpass a majority, if not a supermajority, (Scott) might be on the wrong side of this issue."
Smith said the issue is similar to gay marriage and he foresees Republicans eventually coming around on it, though that's unlikely in this election cycle.
There's also a generational divide on medical marijuana; age is a better predictor of support than party affiliation. This gap is something Republicans must address on a number of issues, including marijuana legalization and marriage equality.
"The question is how responsive will they be, how quickly do they start to change?" Smith said.
Patronis: No room for it
State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, isn't about to change his mind. He opposed medical marijuana last year and feels the same way now. He reiterated his position in a recent interview: If residents want it, they can move to where it's legal.
Patronis isquick to say he's sympathetic to those afflicted by diseases where marijuana would be beneficial, and even has a "very dear friend" who went out of state to obtain pot. He feels for these patients but doesn't want them to get marijuana legally in Florida.
"I think that's the beauty of our country. There's a power of choice, and those individuals do have options; it just may not exist in Florida," he said, adding, "I don't think there's room for it in our current society."
As far as the ballot initiative goes, he thinks something nefarious may be afoot. He pointed out that Crist's employer and biggest political backer, trial lawyer John Morgan, is the money behind the ballot initiative, and Patronis worried the goal is simply to "change a balance of the polls" -- draw out more Democratic-leaning supporters on election day.
"I think there is a certain amount of therapeutic benefit to the individual that's seeking it (medical marijuana), but I think there's a far greater political benefit (to) the proponents that are advocating for it," Patronis said.
Beyond the 82-16 medical marijuana support the Quinnipiac poll found in Florida, there's been a tectonic shift in public opinion on the issue across the U.S. in the last seven years. It's largely due to more socially liberal Millennials coming of age, but also changing attitudes among Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation before them viewing medical marijuana more favorably.
In 2013, only 32 percent of adults in the U.S. said using marijuana is "morally wrong," down from 50 percent in 2006, according to a Pew poll. And support for marijuana legalization climbed to 58 percent in October, up from 48 percent in 2012, according to a Gallop poll. Only 12 percent favored outright legalization when the question was first asked in 1969.
In Florida, the voter-lawmaker opinion gap is not unique to medical marijuana; there was a similar disconnect on class size, smoking in restaurants and minimum wage ballot initiatives, Smith said.
"We saw these issues not get a fair hearing, or not get a hearing at all, in Tallahassee because the Republican leadership didn't want to move on it," the professor said, "even though all those measures passed with majorities and in some cases supermajorities of the electorate."
Smith believes the disconnect is because state lawmakers are "very insulated," living in safe districts where less than a third face any "credible competition" on Election Day.
"As a result they tend to cue to the attitudes of the median voter in their district or not listen to public opinion in their district at all and function as ... some type of trustee, knowing what's best for their constituents," he said. "They are not responsive -- nor necessarily should they be -- to statewide public opinion because they're not statewide elected officials."
Largely, though, these issues take time to germinate. The push for medical marijuana legalization in Florida is more recent than on the West Coast, where it's been legal for nearly two decades in some states, Smith said. Initially both Democrats and Republicans opposed the measure, but they slowly came around, he said.
Now the same thing is happening with full legalization in states such as Colorado and Washington state, and medical marijuana is legal in 18 other states and Washington, D.C. Also, the New York Times reported this weekend that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans this week to announce an executive action that would allow limited use of the drug by those with serious illnesses.
Medical marijuana has passed in nearly every state it's been on the ballot, so Florida's day is coming, Smith said.
"It's the inevitable," he said. "These are shifting patterns."
Medical marijuana has been a dead issue in the Legislature, and Democrats have done little to rally around it, despite its popularity. State Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, has bucked that trend. The freshman lawmaker led the charge in the state House last year, sponsoring a medical marijuana legalization bill, and has plans to file another this year.
Some might expect the socially liberal-leaning Democratic Party would have seized the mantle of this popular issue in Florida, using it to score points on Election Day, but that hasn't happened. It takes time for the old-guard opposition to be phased out and a new progressive group to come in, Smith said.
Edwards said the dearth of support isn't indifference; it's a lack of education.
"In the past, lawmakers really haven't had a reason to discuss this issue at town hall meetings, to take to social media like Twitter and Facebook and ask their constituents their views," she said.
Now that medical pot's profile has grown, lawmakers are looking hard at the issue, which wasn't on their radar previously, Edwards said. She is confident her bill will get committee time this session, unlike last year when no hearings were held on medical marijuana legislation in the House or Senate.
"I think lawmakers have heard from constituents, and I think it's time for the science to have a chance to speak and have doctors and researchers come to the table and talk with lawmakers about their viewpoint, about whether this is something they would feel comfortable prescribing a patient and in what form," she said.
Edwards cited another reason the bill should get committee time: If Florida voters pass the constitutional amendment, the Legislature would create the law.
"Do we want to look like Colorado or like New Jersey, or do we want to craft our own plan that's unique to Florida and that serves our best interest?" she said.
This discussion would include who would grow the plant, extract the THC and develop the medicinal products.
Patronis, though, isn't keen on giving a medical marijuana bill a committee hearing because it would "suck all the air out of the room" and cause a nine-hour marathon session. He said the spectacle wouldn't be fair to other lawmakers trying to get their bills heard.
Through a representative, state Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, declined comment because the case is pending before Supreme Court, but he has supported Bondi's challenge.
State Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, whose district includes northern Bay County, did not respond to a request for comment.
For now, everyone waits -- except for United for Care. The group continues to gather signatures and expects to have 1 million by late this week, said Ben Pollara, campaign manager.
The petitions must be verified and likely plenty will be thrown out, but there's a substantial cushion. The state only requires 683,149 verified ballots. So far 210,961 have been verified; 220 of those came from Bay County. The deadline to turn the petitions in is Feb. 1.
"We're going to get there, but the Legislature over the years has made it more and more difficult for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, so that's been our biggest challenge," Pollara said.
The group has benefited from the promotional efforts of its trial lawyer backer and, more importantly, his money. He's spent about $1 million on the petition drive so far.
Pollara's confident the money will come to fruition if the measure gets on the ballot. He said voter support may not reach 82 percent, but it should pass by a sizable margin. Constitutional amendments require 60 percent of the vote to pass.
"For most Floridians, this is not a controversial issue," Pollara said.
That leaves the Supreme Court hurdle, which is by no means a slam dunk. Oral arguments last month indicated a sharply divided court, as some justices appeared openly hostile to the ballot language while others offered tacit support.
"Right now, all we can do on the Supreme Court is wait," Pollara said, "and I have confidence that the ... seven very sharp attorneys on the court will ultimately rule in our favor."
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