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  1. Florida Politics

United for Care starts new effort to legalize medical marijuana in Florida

Attorney John Morgan is sponsoring the proposal again.
Attorney John Morgan is sponsoring the proposal again.
Published Jan. 9, 2015

The medical marijuana fight is back on.

Attorney John Morgan's United for Care group has submitted a new constitutional amendment to the Florida Division of Elections that could go to voters as early as the 2016 general election.

United for Care's first proposed medical marijuana system gained 58 percent of the vote in November — two points shy of the 60 percent required to amend Florida's Constitution. That's close enough to make another effort worthwhile, said campaign director Ben Pollara.

"The voters of Florida clearly want a medical marijuana law and we intend to pass one, whether in the Legislature this session or on the ballot in 2016,'' Pollara said.

The new proposed amendment is similar to last year's version, with a few tweaks designed to counter objections raised by opponents.

As with the 2014 amendment, the new language calls for doctors to certify that a patient suffers from a debilitating condition and could benefit from using pot. The state would issue ID cards for patients and caregivers. Licensed treatment centers would grow and sell the marijuana. No one could grow their own.

But it adds new language to address objections that the amendment might, for instance, allow teens and people with minor illnesses to get medical marijuana.

To get the new proposed amendment to voters, United for Care must start from scratch because the ballot language has changed.

After United for Care gathers 68,314 valid signatures from registered voters, the Florida Supreme Court will review the ballot language to verify that it meets legal standards.

If the court does approves the amendment, United for Care needs 683,140 petition signatures by Feb. 1, 2016, to get it on that year's general election ballot in November.

Petitions will be on United for Care's website as soon as the election's division approves the ballot format — probably Friday, Pollara said. The division does not pass judgment on the content of a proposed amendment, only that margins, numbers and formatting follow the rules.

Pollara said he expected volunteers will be out seeking signatures "as soon as this weekend and Monday at the latest.''

After the loss in November, Morgan promised he would sponsor another constitutional amendment campaign. Gathering petition signatures the second time should be easier and cheaper, he said, because supporters will have a year to collect them, instead of just a few months as they did in the first campaign. United for Care also still has contact information for people who signed last year's petition.

Most of the roughly $5 million that Morgan spent on the first campaign paid for last-minute professional signature gatherers, who approached voters outside courthouses, drivers license offices and shopping malls across the state.

Opponents criticized last year's amendment on several fronts, so United for Care changed ballot language in anticipation of similar objections, Pollara said.

Opponents said that minors could end up buying medical marijuana without parental consent. The ballot this time specifies that doctors may not certify minor patients without the written consent of a parent or legal guardian, and the state Department of Health must verify that consent before issuing a medical marijuana card.

Last year's ballot listed specific qualifying diseases, plus a catchall category of "other conditions" that a doctor could use to issue a patient certificates. Opponents contended that the phrase "other conditions'' was too vague, allowing people with minor aches and pains to qualify.

The new ballot language lists specific conditions, as well as "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated.''

Opponents also contended that last year's amendment would have protected doctors, patients and treatment centers who harmed someone. United for Care denied that allegation, but did include explicit language this time that all current negligence and professional malpractice laws would still apply.

In response to a claim that drug dealers could have secured caregiver cards, the new ballot instructs the Department of Health to set qualifications for caregivers and do annual background checks

Pollara said all of these features were implicit in last year's amendment, but United Care made them explicit to deflect continued opposition.

Calvina Fay, executive director of St. Petersburg's Drug Free America Foundation, said the changes aren't enough.

"Instead of spending enormous amounts of money on an initiative that alters our state's Constitution and creating a law that could not be easily fixed when it backfires, I would call upon Morgan and his team to spend their money and efforts helping us to advance research and clinical trials on compounds in marijuana that could be developed into real medicine,'' she said in a statement.

"Floridians deserve safe and effective medicine backed by scientific research. Sometimes that medicine is derived from specific compounds found in a plant. But never is medicine derived from smoking a crude weed."

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

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