1. Florida Politics

PTA meeting ends with anti-medical marijuana pamphlets

Published May 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Parents attending a mandatory PTA meeting this month at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School were handed a pamphlet opposing Florida's proposed constitutional amendment on medical marijuana.

"I was astounded. There was all this scary stuff saying how bad it was," said St. Petersburg resident Brock Murch, an amendment supporter whose son attends the school. "People should not be in the schools doing politics."

The pamphlet — whose distribution violated school system policy — did not specifically identify its creator, but it displayed the logos of Save Our Society from Drugs, a St. Petersburg lobbying group, and Don't Let Florida Go to Pot, an anti-amendment website created by Save Our Society and the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Representatives of those organizations did not return requests for comment, but both have taken high-profile positions against the amendment.

Among other things, the pamphlet contended that the amendment "would allow anyone of any age to use marijuana for any condition," a notion hotly contested by amendment sponsors.

How the pamphlets made their way into parents' hands is not entirely clear, but a nonprofit coalition called the NOPE Task Force played a central role, with unofficial help from two Pinellas sheriff's employees.

NOPE has worked closely with the school system and the Sheriff's Office for years to educate students and parents about drugs — primarily the abuse of prescription medication. Several NOPE officials and volunteers have lost children to prescription drug overdoses.

Thurgood Marshall principal Solomon Lowery invited NOPE Pinellas director Laurie Serra to present a program on marijuana for the May 1 parents meeting. A pediatrician talked about negative health effects. Serra gave a testimonial about her stepson's drug overdose, mentioning that his addiction problems began with pot, Murch said.

At the end, Serra urged parents to pick up a copy of the pamphlet on their way out.

PTA attendance is mandatory at fundamental schools. Before leaving, parents must prove they attended by handing in cards containing their children's names.

A woman handing out the pamphlets positioned herself in front of the table where school officials collected the cards, Murch said.

"She said, 'Make sure you get a brochure before you put your card in the box,' " Murch said. "I didn't know if she was a school employee or what."

Serra did not return calls for comment, but Karen Perry, NOPE's executive director in Palm Beach, said the organization does "not get political in our presentations. We make that pretty clear."

As of Friday afternoon, Perry said, she had not yet talked to Serra to find out where the brochures came from.

Helping Serra hand them out were an off-duty sergeant and clerk for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office wearing NOPE polo shirts, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.

Serra provided the brochures, Pasha said.

Deputies have helped Serra hand out other printed material at other functions, Pasha said, and probably did not consider the pamphlet's political nature.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri opposes the amendment.

The principal, Lowery, was unaware that the brochures would be handed out, said schools spokeswoman Donna Winchester.

Letting anyone distribute political material at a school function violates policy, Winchester said. The administration will "investigate the chain of events" and will make that policy clear "to all groups that are invited to give presentations.''

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at