State Politics

Florida Legislature kicks the can on medical marijuana; supporters gear up new ballot initiative

Medical marijuana supporters are gearing up another ballot initiative for 2016, and the Florida lawmaker who sponsored a failed medical marijuana bill this past session and said he would never support a consitituional amendment, said he doesn't blame them.

"As little as the Legislature moved on this, good for them," said Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. "I think this should be done in the Legislature but if we don't act, it gives them no other option."

Steube tried to push medical marijuana through the Legislature last session, originally introducing a bill that would legalize non-smokeable cannabis as a treatment for a set list of diseases. He limited it further after other lawmakers expressed concern about the lack of limits on levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that produces the high associated with marijuana.

The final House product was basically an extension of Charlotte's Web to other diseases besides those that result in seizures or muscle spasms. Charlotte's Web is a strain of cannabis with extremely low THC levels and was legalized for medical use in 2014, but implementation of the non-controversial strain has hit serious snags along the way.

Those snags are why Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said House leadership isn't ready to consider further legalization of medical marijuana. Steube's bill died in the Health Quality Subcommittee without a hearing or a vote. The Senate version also died in committee.

"There's still room for us to see what's appropriate with this (Charlotte's Web)," said Boyd, deputy majority leader and majority whip for the Florida House. "I think we need to get this in place and watch the effects of it for a period of time before we do anything dramatically different."

That line of thinking is where lawmakers differ. Some, such as Boyd, say they'd rather wait and make sure implementation of medical marijuana is done the correct way, even if that takes much longer. Others, such as Steube, feel the pressure of a ballot initiative is too real to ignore, and if they don't act then the passage of a constitutional amendment is much too likely, especially after it almost won voter approval in 2014.

"With a presidential election year, and with them only missing by like 2 percentage points last time, I don't think it'll be challenging for them to get it passed," Steube said. "But I don't think medical marijuana belongs in our Constitution, and it would mean the Legislature has no control over regulating power."

Meanwhile, supporters of medical marijuana are not sitting idle. United for Care drafted its second try at a medical marijuana amendment, learning from the mistakes of the 2014 campaign, which narrowly failed to get the 60 percent majority vote needed to pass. They are currently collecting signatures, and have about 50,000 of the 683,149 required so far.

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, the group pushing the ballot initiative, said they haven't even started the paid petition process yet, so he's confident they'll have the signatures required by Feb. 1.

The new language is very similar to the proposed amendment in 2014, but Pollara said they're applying lessons from that campaign to the new ballot initiative. The 2016 language clarifies that parents would have to give permission for their children to receive a prescription for medical marijuana, that medical cannabis is only for debilitating medical conditions and that the Department of Health can limit who is qualified to be a caregiver.

"We already got this approved once, and now we're just making a few changes based on the Supreme Court's suggestions," Pollara said. "Sixty percent is never easy to get, but we got 58 percent against a lot of opposition. I'm pretty confident that we could get this to pass with the more favorable electorate in 2016, but you never know what's going to happen."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at kirby@bradenton.com. You can follow her on Twitter@Kate Irby.

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