Local policymakers discuss Amendment 2, medical marijuana

SARASOTA -- Amendment 2 and the medical marijuana discussion in Florida "ain't going away," state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said at a panel Tuesday.

Amendment 2 advocates have already said the issue will be back in 2016, a presidential election year where the likelihood of it passing could be greater.

Some opponents of the amendment aren't necessarily against the legalization of medical marijuana but say they are troubled it was on the ballot as a state constitutional amendment.

Legalizing medical marijuana discussions were included at the fourth annual Smart Justice Summit,

a three-day conference at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota, where more than 250 policymakers, including sheriffs, judges, state attorneys, public defenders and more than 20 state legislators, discussed problems in the criminal justice system and possible ways to improve the system in Florida.

"It became not about marijuana but about bad public policy," said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who led a grassroots campaign to educate voters about Amendment 2.

As sheriffs began to understand what was being proposed, the Florida Sheriffs Association launched a coalition called "Don't Let Florida Go to Pot" to address concerns about the amendment, Florida Sheriffs Association Executive Director Steve Casey said.

The Florida Sheriffs Association did support legalizing Charlotte's Web, a low-THC cannabis intended to help epilepsy patients.

"We were amazed at who came forward early on and said they wanted to be part of the coalition," Casey said. "We assembled this on the fly."

The collaborative effort made the difference in ensuring the amendment wasn't added to the state constitution, Eslinger said.

Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society From Drugs, said if Amendment 2 had passed, there would be 1,800 marijuana shops throughout the state and many dispensaries would have been linked to organized crime.

"I was extremely concerned of how it would change the whole dynamics of our community," Fay said, adding it would promote marijuana use to adults and youth alike. She added the organizations wanted the state to get behind clinical trials, which her groups are in favor of doing.

As the medical marijuana conversation continues in Florida, Fay said the public needs to learn medical marijuana and street pot are the same thing.

"I was really surprised that people didn't realize that," she said.

The medical marijuana issue will reappear for some time and, while some recent language changes address some loopholes from November, others still cause concern, Casey said.

"It's better that those issues be discussed by the Florida Legislature than to put it in the constitution and have the court make the decision about whether they want to hear the case," Casey said. "Our goal is to get a very tightly controlled system in Florida that would allow flexibility by the Legislature on how we will approach this, but at the same time, to allow the law-enforcement community to ensure that this wouldn't be a free pass for people that want to engage in a new drug choice."

Eslinger said Florida should pay attention to other states where marijuana is legal.

"It simply doesn't belong in our constitution," he said. "I think it is something that we should be very careful to move forward on. ... It is about doing the right thing and having the right public policy in place."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.