Florida overwhelmingly votes to legalize medical marijuana

Published November 9 2016
Updated November 9 2016

Patients suffering from debilitating illnesses will soon have access to medical marijuana in Florida after voters approved Amendment 2 Tuesday.

By 8:30 p.m. it was clear that Amendment 2 would pass with well above the required 60 percent threshold. The amendment inserts language into the Florida Constitution allowing those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and a host of other conditions to use marijuana if it is recommended by their doctor.

"Getting over 60 percent at this point means so much both symbolically and legally because we're able to relinquish the name of criminals that has been forced on us," said Moriah Barnhart of Brandon, whose daughter Dahlia uses cannabis as treatment for brain cancer after being diagnosed at age 2.

Just two years ago, a similar provision fell short. That makes this victory particularly sweet for John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the marijuana campaign's effort to secure a spot on the ballot this year.

"Hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering Floridians will now benefit from this law, and soon," Morgan wrote in an email to supporters. "This was never about winning an election, although that's exactly what we did tonight. The election was a means to an end."

At a victory party in Orlando, campaign manager Ben Pollara declared that Tuesday's result is the largest pro-marijuana vote in the country.

Florida becomes the 26th state to legalize marijuana for either medical or recreational use. Arkansas and North Dakota voters are considering similar ballot issues this year as well.

In addition to the medical marijuana measure, Floridians approved two property tax-related amendments to the state Constitution. Amendment 3 creates a tax exemption for firefighters, law enforcement and correctional officers disabled after being injured in the line of duty. Amendment 5 allows cities and counties to extend a tax exemption for low-income seniors if the value of their home grows beyond the $250,000 cap already on the books.

Questions remain about how the medical marijuana amendment will be implemented.

The Florida Department of Health has until July 2017 to pass regulations under the new amendment. By October, the state must start registering growers, dispensaries and other facilities and start issuing identification cards for patients approved to use marijuana.

In recent weeks, polls suggested that Amendment 2 would likely pass with wide support. Still, a group of medical marijuana opponents funded by St. Petersburg developer and Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler and Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson mounted an aggressive campaign against it.

The No on 2 campaign argued that passing Amendment 2 would lead to thousands of unsafe pot shops cropping up in the state, the introduction of cannabis candy marketed for children and an unregulated drug industry. However, Amendment 2 allows the Legislature and the health department to closely regulate medical marijuana.

In a statement, No on 2 spokeswoman Christina Johnson urged state lawmakers to pass regulations on the medical marijuana industry.

"The authors of Amendment 2 have long maintained that the Legislature has wide discretion to regulate the implementation of Amendment 2 for the health, safety and welfare of all Floridians," Johnson said. "Therefore, we implore the Legislature to take the authors of Amendment 2 at their word by passing implementing legislation that bans pot candy, puts a limit on THC levels, tightly defines 'other debilitating medical conditions,' and gives local communities the right to limit, restrict, and outright ban pot shops."

Others, including Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, raised objections that medical marijuana should not be legalized by constitutional amendment and instead should be left up the Legislature. Latvala, who had no re-election opponent, funded an anti-marijuana advertising campaign using his own campaign funds.

But patients and their families who have been waiting for access to cannabis say state lawmakers had their chance to act.

Barnhart said she doesn't believe much has changed in the last two years — except that more people have heard stories of patients and their families.

"For people who don't have experience with this, and who are voting entirely based on the information and stories they receive from us and patients and families throughout the state, we're extremely grateful for that faith," she said.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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