Florida medical marijuana supporters to try new amendment

The Miami HeraldJuly 13, 2013 

The backers of a Florida medical-marijuana initiative have rewritten their proposed constitutional amendment and now face the toughest of paths to even get on the 2014 ballot.

After consulting with high-powered lawyers and conducting polls and focus groups, People United for Medical Marijuana decided to scrap its original initiative out of a fear that it wouldn't survive the courts or might not withstand the attacks of anti-drug activists.

A new survey conducted by the group, nicknamed PUFMM, shows the latest proposal could garner as much as 71 percent of the vote. It takes 60 percent of voters to approve a state constitutional amendment.

The poll of 500 likely Florida voters also indicated that a plurality, 46 percent, favored outright legalization while 36 percent opposed it.

But whether medical pot will ever be decided by voters in next year's election is an open question.

By proposing new language, approved Wednesday by the state, PUFMM discarded tens of thousands of petition signatures from voters who wanted to get medical marijuana on the ballot.

Now the process begins again.

"We're starting out with no signatures in the bank and we need more than 683,000 signatures just to make the ballot," said Ben Pollara, treasurer for the group, nicknamed PUFMM.

But PUFMM will need to gather far more than the required 683,149 valid voter signatures -- perhaps as many as 1 million -- because not every petition it submits to election officials for verification will come from a registered voter.

There's not much time.

The petition verification deadline is Feb. 1, 2104. But officials and campaign experts say the bulk of the petitions need to be submitted well before the deadline to give elections officials enough time to verify the voter signatures.

To gather so many signatures in such a short period of time, the group will need to hire paid petition gathers, who could charge as much as $4 per petition. Maximum likely cost: $4 million.

And there's yet another hurdle. Once the group gathers 10 percent of the valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, it needs to submit the language to the Florida Supreme Court, which will decide whether the language is misleading or impermissibly tackles multiple subjects instead of just one issue.

The original ballot summary listed a number of specific diseases, but still said physicians could recommend medical pot uses for other purposes.

The new proposed summary dwells briefly on "debilitating diseases," and calls on the Department of Health to regulate the program, distribute medical marijuana identification cards and regulate licensed pot dispensaries. It also specifies that it does not "authorize violations of federal law," which still holds that marijuana is illegal.

The proposed text of the actual ballot language also grew from nearly 200 words to more than 1,300.

Pollara said the revamped proposal was drafted in consultation with focus groups, conducted by The Kitchens Group, which also produced the June survey of 500 likely voters showing that about 7 in 10 would support medical marijuana.

But support wasn't rock solid. After asking a series of questions about the proposal, support slightly slipped to 65 percent.

A big drawback of the proposal in the eyes of potential voters: the idea that medical marijuana could lead to a rash of homegrown pot.

When asked if qualifying patients who live far away from a dispensary should be able to grow their own plants, only 30 percent of voters in the poll favored the idea; 70 percent agreed with the statement that "medical marijuana should only be available at a licensed dispensary regulated by the state. People should not be allowed to grow marijuana at home under any circumstances."

About 52 percent of poll respondents said they "worry" kids could more easily obtain marijuana if medical cannabis were legalized.

Also, the idea that medical marijuana is a "gateway drug" leading to more cocaine or heroin use is a major challenge, according to the focus group report.

A plus for the proposal: 79 percent of voters agreed with the statement that marijuana is "lot less dangerous than many prescription drugs which are easily available." And 74 percent agreed with the statement that "marijuana is illegal because pharmaceutical companies and drug cartels are making so much money selling their drugs."

The most popular statement polled: "The best treatment for a patient is a medical decision and should be made exclusively by a doctor and a patient." More than 91 percent of people agreed with that statement.

But don't expect the state's leading physicians group, the Florida Medical Association, to support the proposal. Like the American Medical Association, the FMA opposes medical marijuana initiatives.

So does the St. Petersburg-based Save Our Society from Drugs, which has fought similar proposals in other states.

"This isn't just about somebody on their death bed smoking a joint," said Calvina Fay, executive director for SOS, said.

"This is about cultivation, trafficking, sales, retails sales and it's not limited to people on their death bed. It's wide open."

The main financial backer of Florida's proposed con-stitution amendment, Orlando trial lawyer and Democratic fundraiser John Morgan, whose father used medical marijuana before hisdeath recently, said op-ponents are using fear tactics that keep sick people from getting the relief they need.

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