1. Florida Politics

Romano: Medical pot groups' dilemma — get it done now or hold out for more?

Published Feb. 15, 2015

When is the time right to lower your fists? Do you accept an opponent's hand when it is offered, or do you keep swinging until the fight is completed?

Metaphorically speaking, this is medical marijuana's dilemma.

Legislation has been proposed that could make marijuana available to tens of thousands of patients throughout Florida, but not as accessible as supporters had once envisioned.

So what's a crusader to do:

Endorse a compromise offered by lawmakers in 2015, or take it back to the voters with a constitutional amendment in 2016?

The answer is as nuanced as the issue.

A bill proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is not as sweeping as an amendment that narrowly failed three months ago, but it could reach enough patients that medical marijuana and pro-cannabis groups are throwing their support behind it.

And yet a bill proposed by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would also expand current uses, but it includes restrictions that are deal-breakers for medical marijuana supporters.

"There is no such thing as perfect legislation, but we try not to let perfect be the enemy of good," said Ben Pollara, executive director of United for Care, the John Morgan-supported group behind the 2014 amendment.

"The Brandes bill isn't everything we wanted, but if it passed, it's almost certain that we would not go back (to an amendment) in 2016. And while we agree with a lot of what's in the Steube bill, and it's a great step forward in the House, we would probably still explore an amendment if that's what the Legislature passes."

The undercurrent to this entire conversation?

Marijuana has momentum. Lots of momentum.

Nearly half the country now offers medicinal marijuana in some form, and though a ballot initiative in Florida failed to reach the required 60 percent in November, it still drew the support of nearly 58 percent of the voters. Or, to put it another way, medical marijuana was more popular than either Gov. Rick Scott or Attorney General Pam Bondi.

So while that defeat may be a fresh and painful memory, marijuana supporters have enough confidence in the future that they are unwilling to yield too much. They would rather keep fighting than give in to too many restrictions.

And that means Steube's proposal is a non-starter.

His bill followed the recommendations of the Florida Sheriffs Association (his father is Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube), which limited the medical conditions eligible and banned marijuana in a smokable form.

While praising Steube for getting the conversation started in the House, Brandes says he is not in favor of limiting marijuana's uses or forms.

He said he recently spoke with well-known marijuana advocate and ALS patient Cathy Jordan of Sarasota who told him smoking pot has kept her alive. Many patients argue the smokable form alleviates conditions far better than oils or pills.

"When I hear that, I think, 'Who am I to say how this medicine should be taken,' " Brandes said. "Let's let physicians make the determination of the means with which it's administered."

Brandes acknowledges his bill faces an uphill battle, but he's hopeful legislators are motivated by the potential that a 2016 amendment could look even less appealing.

Last time around, anti-pot advocates managed to overcome overwhelmingly lopsided polls with heavy advertising that portrayed the amendment as being rife with loopholes.

That may be a difficult strategy to pull off a second time.

"The people in Florida are so far beyond the lawmakers on this issue," said Jodi James, executive director of the Florida Cannabis Action Network, which is also supporting Brandes but not Steube. "I think lawmakers are shooting themselves in the foot, and people just aren't going to tolerate it anymore."

Lawmakers should have no doubt about where residents stand on this issue. There is a demand, and there is a need for medical marijuana in Florida. The details are important, but legislators had better listen to their constituents or risk being ignored themselves.