Florida pols look out of touch in medical marijuana

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Cathy Jordan and her husband, Robert, sit on their back porch where a marijuana plant is growing in an earthbox. The Jordans have supported a petition to legalize medical marijuana in Florida for people like Cathy, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The Parrish couple say Cathy's symptoms are greatly reduced by smoking pot. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald File

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Time and again, Florida's Republican leaders have bashed Big Government, especially if it intrudes upon the doctor-patient relationship.

When it comes to Obamacare, that is.

But when it comes to medical marijuana, they've so far been all Big Government all the way.

The opposition to physicians recommending prescription cannabis isn't just an example of political inconsistency in Tallahassee. It's a sign that -- unlike their opposition to Obamacare -- GOP leaders look greatly out of step with voters, including rank-and-file Republicans.

As many as 70 percent of registered Florida Republicans said they favored medical marijuana, according to the most-recent Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late November. Support was even higher among Democrats (87 percent) and independents (88 percent).

The divide between the politicians and voters is in

creasingly troubling to some Republicans.

"I don't want the Republican Party to be called the anti-civil liberties party," said Rick Wilson, a Tallahassee political consultant.

"Simply as a political hack," he said with a touch of self-deprecating humor, "I don't want our party to marginalize itself."

Consider:

• Public sentiment is growing for outright legalization; 58 percent approve nationwide and a plurality of 48 percent support it in Florida, according to respective polls from Gallup and Quinnipiac.

• So far, 21 states and the District of Columbia have some form of medical-marijuana. The number has been growing every few months, though pot is still illegal at the federal level.

• A proposed constitutional amendment by People United for Medical Marijuana might make the 2014 ballot in Florida. Proponents say they've gathered more than 1 million registered-voter petitions, 683,149 of which need to be verified by elections officials by Feb. 1. More than 375,000 have been approved so far. The number grows daily.

Unlikely pot supporters

Wilson, inspired by a conservative National Review piece on marijuana decriminalization, made his case in the conservative website Ricochet on Tuesday -- a remarkable act for a high-profile consultant who's ostensibly bucking the very GOP establishment that signs some of his checks.

Wilson said opposition to his piece has primarily come from the evangelical community. He also suspects that the private-prison industry, which profits from the war on drugs, provides behind-the-scenes opposition to medical marijuana.

John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said his group and other Christian conservatives oppose the prescription cannabis initiative because he worries it could lead to outright legalization, which has happened in Colorado and Washington. That could lead to more minors using pot.

Also, many conservatives are concerned Florida's effort is being pushed by attorney John Morgan, who employs and financially backs Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (Morgan says it's nonpartisan and dismisses the criticisms as fear-mongering).

But the polling and the fact marijuana has some medical uses, Stemberger says, makes it relatively unlikely that organizations such as his will devote significant amounts of money opposing the initiative.

"We have to be selective with what our priorities are going to be," Stemberger said.

More lawmakers step up

Meanwhile, a few Republican lawmakers are starting to view the issue more slightly more favorably.

On Thursday, the chairman of the state House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Shalimar Rep. Matt Gaetz, held a nearly two-hour hearing on the medical uses of a strain of marijuana called "Charlotte's Web," which was invented in Colorado and named after a little epileptic girl it helped.

For three straight years, the Legislature has refused to even hold a hearing on medical-marijuana legislation.

Featured on CNN, Charlotte's Web is supposed to be low in the psychoactive chemical THC and is high in a seizure-inhibiting substance known as CBD. Some parents say it's a last, best hope for relieving incessant and uncontrollable seizures in their epileptic children.

After listening to parents' heartbreaking stories, Gaetz said he'd push a bill to legalize "Charlotte's Web… so that these people do not have to be criminals."

Gaetz still opposes Florida's medical-pot initiative because, he said, it's too open-ended and could allow "a marijuana dispensary on every corner" (a claim that proponents deny).

But Republicans should support "removal of government barriers to medicine that alleviates the suffering of people," Gaetz said. "If we're going to be known as the party of liberty and the party that runs government competently, we're already behind the eight-ball."

Gaetz is the first top Florida Republican legislator to acknowledge marijuana shouldn't be classified by the federal government as a substance that has no medicinal value. The federal government considers cocaine to be more medicinal than marijuana.

Also notable: Gaetz is the son of state Senate President Don Gaetz, who joined state House Speaker Will Weatherford and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in recently asking the state Supreme Court to keep the medical-marijuana amendment off the ballot. They say it's too permissive and the ballot summary is misleading (claims that proponents deny).

The court has yet to rule.

"I think the attorney general has done the right thing with the advice she gave the Supreme Court," Gov. Rick Scott said last week. "I oppose illegal drug abuse… I've watched what it does to families."

It's unclear what Scott's opposition would be to a doctor recommending marijuana instead of a more harmful -- and more lethal -- drug like Oxycontin, which resembles pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

Scott was clearly concerned about Big Government interfering with physicians when he issued a statement after the U.S. Supreme Court's declared in 2012 that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

"They have … forced the government into the important relationship between patients and their doctors," Scott said in a statement that listed other concerns as well.

When Obamacare was first passed in 2010, the Florida Legislature rushed to propose a constitutional amendment along with a ballot summary that said the initiative sought, among other things, to "protect the doctor-patient relationship."

The Legislature's proposed amendment didn't do that at all, according to a Tallahassee judge and the Florida Supreme Court. Both courts blocked the amendment from the ballot for the misleading summary.

Lawmakers complained the public should have had the ultimate say. Meanwhile, the politicians continued blocking medical-marijuana legislation from getting a single vote in a committee.

Around the same, the courts also struck down another "misleading" legislative ballot initiative that sought to undermine two citizens' proposals to stop lawmakers from gerrymandering political districts that intentionally favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.

The anti-gerrymandering amendments each passed in 2010 with more than 62 percent voter approval. It takes 60 percent voter approval to amend the state constitution.

The Legislature's anti-Obamacare amendment fared much worse when lawmakers got it on the 2012 ballot; 51.5 percent of voters opposed it. In all last year, a majority of voters rejected eight legislatively proposed constitutional amendments outright. Voters approved only three (small property tax cuts for poor seniors, disabled veterans and the spouses of deceased veterans and first responders).

So the very Legislature that proposes a disproportionate number of unpopular constitutional amendments wants to keep voters from deciding one that appears popular.

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