Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a key opponent to Florida's medical marijuana amendment, says he could support a new legislative push to legalize pot for patients. And he's not alone in the law enforcement community.
Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday that he supports a bill introduced Monday by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would allow a variety of patients to use a number of different marijuana strains.
David Shoar, president of the Florida Sheriff's Association, said he thinks most county sheriffs will also support the Brandes bill — or something similar — "as long as it is tightly managed.''
Last year, a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana garnered 58 percent of the vote, just shy of the 60 percent required for passage. Attorney John Morgan's United for Care group has launched a petition drive to put another amendment on the ballot for 2016, a presidential year.
Indeed, some observers have noted that having a medical marijuana question on the ballot could encourage younger, more Democratic-leaning voters to come to the polls.
"There's no question it is going to get voted in by the public, as close as it was'' last year, said Shoar, sheriff of St. Johns County. "We want to do it the right way — through passage of law.
"If we continue saying, 'No, no, no,' we are going to get what somebody else develops,'' he said, referring to the fact that an amendment cannot be changed in the legislative process. "Why not get a seat at the table?"
Gualtieri, who campaigned vigorously against last year's Amendment 2, said the Brandes bill gives local authorities control over dispensaries and addresses many of his other concerns about the failed amendment.
The bill lists specific qualifying conditions and symptoms, where the amendment made a general statement about "debilitating conditions,'' Gualtieri noted. The bill requires the approval of two physicians before a minor can qualify to use marijuana. Only medical and osteopathic doctors could authorize use, while the amendment would have allowed chiropractors and podiatrists to certify patients.
The bill also restricts sales to counties where local officials pass an ordinance governing the number of dispensaries and where they are located.
"There are a significant number of people who want this and there is a need for it for medical purposes,'' Gualtieri said. "This should be legislatively driven. We should not be talking about this in 2016.''
Opposition from law enforcement played a strong role in derailing Amendment 2.
Gualtieri chairs the Florida Sheriff's Association legislative lobbying committee. Both he and Shoar emphasized that they were speaking for themselves, not the association. The group will discuss medical marijuana next week, they said.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco did not respond to calls for comment.
Gualtieri said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, last year's association president and another vocal Amendment 2 critic, shares his view that the Legislature should take the lead in developing a tightly controlled medical marijuana system.
Judd's office referred questions to Shoar.
Gualtieri said he would like to see one change in the Brandes bill: Restrict use to vaporizers, tinctures or topical oils and still outlaw smoking.
"People who want to use it for recreational purposes aren't sitting there on a Saturday night and saying 'Let's get out oil and rub it on our arms,' '' he said. "Smoking is a social thing.''
Last year, the Legislature legalized "Charlotte's Web,'' a non-euphoric, low-THC strain of pot thought to help children with severe epilepsy.
The Brandes bill would not restrict THC levels, which are important for treating pain, nausea and other conditions.
Rep. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, who sponsored the Charlotte's Web bill, said he expects "a robust discussion'' and hearings on whether to expand on that narrow approach. But the threat of another constitutional amendment effort should not be the motivating force, he said.
"We need to take a serious look at what works and what doesn't,'' Bradley said. "We need a discussion based on facts — facts presented by experts, facts presented by fellow citizens who are suffering from these disabling conditions. That's what needs to drive where the discussion goes — rather than the politics.''
If the Brandes bill or similar legislation passes this session, United for Care will drop its new constitutional amendment campaign, executive director Ben Pollara said Tuesday.
"Our goal is not winning elections, it is passing a medical marijuana law," Pollara said. "I don't think this law is perfect, but it is real comprehensive.''
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]