Romano: A small court case might be a big sign for medical marijuana

Published Mar. 5, 2015

Sometimes, change arrives dramatic and loud. And sometimes, it is as understated as two simple words.

Not guilty.

With that declaration, a Broward County jury may eventually have as much impact on Florida's medical marijuana debate as all of the advertising and shouting that preceded last fall's failed constitutional amendment.

For what is believed to be the first time in state history, a jury has accepted a medical necessity defense in a marijuana trial. And so Jesse Teplicki, a 50-year-old marine mechanic who says he suffers from chronic anorexia, avoided a potential five-year prison term for having 46 cannabis plants growing in his home.

"This case was for the thousands and thousands who need this medicine," Teplicki said. "It saved my a- -, but I'm just a stepping stone for everyone else."

What it actually means for others down the road is not entirely clear.

It is one verdict in one trial in a county with a high percentage of Democratic voters. And so an argument could be made that it is a random legal outlier.

But I wouldn't bet on that.

Coupled with the constitutional amendment in November that had the support of nearly 58 percent of the voters and current legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, it looks like one more indication that Florida residents believe marijuana has legitimate and valuable benefits.

"This is not going to be a one-time happening," said Stetson University law professor Bobbi Flowers, a former prosecutor. "When you have this case coming so close after the (November) vote, it's a sign this sort of defense is going to be very effective.

"I think it's going to have a ripple effect because prosecutors are going to have to reconsider whether they want to devote their scant resources on cases where their chances of success are not as high as they once were."

Even so, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe is not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

"I don't think you can call one case a trend," McCabe said. "I don't think there's any question that the state is moving in that direction, but the law hasn't been changed yet. So I don't think you let six (jurors) in Broward decide prosecutions for the rest of the state."

More than 20 years ago, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of a Panama City Beach couple in a similar case, citing a centuries-old right to break the law in order to avoid a greater harm, essentially creating a medical necessity defense.

Still, most defendants have been hesitant to take their chances in front of a jury.

In Teplicki's case, he could have walked away with 18 months' probation if he had taken a plea deal. Instead, he faced a potential five years in prison. He did it, he said, because he did not want to face life without marijuana. Having tried dozens of prescriptions over the years, he said marijuana is the only drug that curbs his nausea and stimulates his appetite.

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"All it took was one man with the guts to stand up for his rights," said attorney Michael Minardi of the Kelley Kronenberg law firm. "I've already sent emails to state attorneys offices where I have other clients in similar situations. I hope it makes them think twice, knowing that this is going to be a legitimate defense."