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Florida Supreme Court justices question marijuana ballot language

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Supreme Court justices held a one-hour, sometimes testy hearing Thursday on a proposed medical marijuana amendment to determine the constitutionality of ballot language.

"Misleading" language is one of the primary complaints from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has asked the court for an advisory opinion on the amendment proposed by People United for Medical Marijuana. In her brief, Bondi states that the amendment "hides the fact that the Amendment would make Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states, allowing use for limitless 'other conditions' specified by any physician."

Some of the justices grilled People United attorney Jon Mills about the scope of the proposed amendment, which he countered is narrow. Much of the discussion focused on the term "debilitating disease," which is used in the ballot summary, versus "medical conditions," which is used in the amendment language.

The amendment gives "debilitating medical condition" as a requirement for medical marijuana and lists several ailments including cancer, glaucoma, positive status for HIV, AIDS, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis, but also states that it's for "other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."

The most conservative judges on the bench, Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justice Charles T. Canady, appeared to aggressively challenge Mills while more liberal judges Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince were inclined to ask questions to help explain the amendment. The seven-member panel has until April 1 to make a decision.

Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who presented the case for Bondi, said people "don't even have to have a disease" to get medical marijuana under this amendment.

Polston likewise said that the way he read the amendment, a student "stressed over exams" could go to a doctor and get a prescription for pot, though Mills said it would have to be a "debilitating" ailment.

Patients who are prescribed medical marijuana would have an identification card and be tracked by the health department.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia now allow medical marijuana.

Even if the court allows the medical marijuana amendment on the 2014 Florida ballot, People United has to obtain 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1. The group has about 500,000 signatures but less than half that number are verified.

Neither Bondi nor House Speaker Will Weatherford and Don Gaetz, who also oppose the bill, were present at the hearing. But the amendment's most outspoken proponent, attorney John Morgan, was.

Morgan, who said he has spent about $1 million on this campaign, relying on both paid and volunteer petitioners, remains confident he can get those signatures.

While he downplayed the ideological differences on the court, he said that no matter the language in the ballot, the state's political leadership will object. Morgan's firm employs gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, but he said the issue isn't partisan and if it makes it to the ballot, it won't bring a certain electorate to the polls.

"People who vote for Rick Scott will vote for this," he said. "People who vote for Nan Rich or Charlie Crist will vote for this."

Morgan did say that opposing medical marijuana may eventually hurt politicians who oppose it because a recent poll shows that 82 percent of Florida voters support it.

"Everyone here knows that one day medical marijuana is going to be legal in Florida" whether it's in 2014 or 2024, he said.