Opinion polls show Florida voters overwhelming support letting sick patients use marijuana as medicine, and at least 20 states have permitted it in some form. But when the Florida Supreme Court hears arguments today about the ballot language for a constitutional amendment that would permit medical marijuana, the justices won't be deciding whether the amendment is a good idea. The justices are addressing two narrow questions: Does the medical marijuana amendment involve a single subject? Do the ballot title and summary accurately reflect the purpose and impact of the amendment? As they listen to the arguments, the justices should focus on two key issues:
The amendment includes a broad grant of immunity from civil liability for the provision and use of marijuana. Does this violate the single subject rule?
Supporters of the medical marijuana amendment say it just asks voters to allow an individual afflicted with a debilitating condition to obtain permission from a licensed Florida physician to use medical marijuana for a limited period of time. The patient would have to submit to a full physical, and after the drug's use is approved by his or her doctor the patient or caregiver would have to obtain an identification card from the Department of Health. Patients could obtain limited amounts of the drug through facilities registered with the state, and the Legislature and state health department could write laws and rules setting tight controls.
That is the thrust of the amendment. But opponents say the impact of the amendment's language would reach further and violate the single subject rule. The amendment would grant civil liability immunity to patients, personal caregivers, physicians and treatment centers where medical marijuana is dispensed. The justices should explore whether this argument has merit.
Is the ballot title and summary misleading by incompletely describing the types of medical conditions where medical marijuana could be used?
Access to medical marijuana is limited to patients suffering from a debilitating medical condition, but how that condition is defined in the ballot and summary are not identical to the text of the amendment.
The amendment's title reads: "Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions." The summary states that persons with "debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician" would be allowed to use medical marijuana. When read together, the upshot is that people can't get marijuana just because it would make them feel better. They have to be seriously sick as diagnosed by a doctor.
But opponents say the full text of the amendment defines a "Debilitating Medical Condition" so broadly that there would be no definitive limits on access to marijuana. Under the definition, physicians could recommend the drug for cancer, glaucoma and other specified conditions that most people would recognize as a serious illness. But it goes on to say patients with "other conditions" qualify for medical marijuana use if physicians believe "the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."
Would voters reading the full text think they were misled by the title and summary? The justices should probe whether voters would understand what they were voting on.
Humanitarian considerations may be why more than 80 percent of Florida voters say they favor medical marijuana. But the justices' job is to protect the public from confusion and obfuscation — and that has nothing to do with the public policy merits.