Column: Don't subvert will of the voters on medical marijuana

Published Apr. 6, 2017

Imagine for a moment that after the November 2016 elections, as then-President-elect Donald Trump was assembling his administration, he was told that his chief of staff, the person charged with carrying out his agenda in the White House, would have to be John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign and a key objector to Trump's agenda during the campaign.

It's a ridiculous notion. In our republican democracy, elections matter. The people's will matters. But something analogous to that is precisely what is occurring in Tallahassee with the implementation of medical marijuana.

Last fall, Floridians approved an amendment to the state Constitution allowing for the use of medical marijuana by a 71 percent vote. It was the largest percentage such an initiative ever received in our nation's 20-year history with state medical marijuana laws.

So when Calvina Fay of the Drug Free America Foundation stood before a committee in the Florida House and endorsed the House plan to implement the medical marijuana amendment, I quickly felt sick to my stomach. Fay's organization, led by former ambassador Mel Sembler, raised and spent more than $10 million opposing medical marijuana in the 2014 and 2016 elections. In its more than 20-year history, DFAF has reflexively opposed any sort of reform of marijuana laws, whether medical or otherwise.

Fay said that DFAF had offered numerous suggestions for how to implement the law and that many of them had been incorporated into the implementing proposal, HB 1397. So enamored was Fay with the legislation, she beamed at the idea that DFAF might now employ the language of HB 1397 as a "model" to be shopped to other states that had passed popular initiatives allowing medical marijuana, in order to weaken those laws as well.

The degree to which this is an affront to Florida voters, the language of our Constitution and sick and suffering Floridians who could benefit from medical marijuana is hard to overstate.

I was one of the primary authors of Amendment 2, "Use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions," now Article X, Section 29 of the Constitution. It removes criminal and civil penalties for the medical use of marijuana for patients, caregivers and doctors. It also provides for the "availability and safe use" of marijuana for the same. Those are core purposes of the law.

HB 1397, as co-authored by Fay and Sembler, attempts to severely restrict those essential tenets of the amendment. If passed, the House proposal would have the practical effect of negating the popularly approved law, creating a system in many ways even more limited than the existing, low-THC cannabis statute passed in 2014.

HB 1397 proposes:

• Banning virtually all forms of consumption of medical marijuana — smoking, vaporizing and eating.

• Requiring doctors wait three months before certifying a patient for medical marijuana, and requiring a recertification every three months thereafter.

• Creating numerous new criminal penalties for patients and caregivers for even minor violations under the law.

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• Forcing doctors to violate federal law, risking prosecution and loss of their license.

• Turning the Department of Health into an enforcement agency and charging it with monitoring and policing the practice of medicine.

These are just some of the more egregious provisions contained in HB 1397's over 60 pages of text. It is understandable, then, that Fay, Sembler and their ilk are so thrilled with the House proposal.

What's not understandable is why they have such an outsize voice in this conversation. A House that prides itself in not being in the business of "picking winners and losers" has clearly made its choice here, letting the losers write the law. In doing so, they House has made a further choice to override the mandate of 71 percent of Floridians.

This all feels like The Twilight Zone. Yes is no. Winners are losers; 71 percent is 29 percent. Access is restriction.

Without significant amending of HB 1397, Floridians who passed Amendment 2 will have to live with this dystopian nightmare. Their only seeming hope at this point is that the Florida Senate continues to operate within the bounds of reality and respect for the voters' will.

HB 1397's sponsor, Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, claimed to have an "open-door policy" for stakeholders while drafting this law. He did. I met with the leader numerous times before the bill was filed. But to paraphrase Rosie Perez's character in the 1992 film, White Men Can't Jump, "You hear me, but you're not listening."

Unless, of course, your name is Mel Sembler or Calvina Fay.

Ben Pollara is the executive director of Florida for Care. He was the campaign manager for the successful effort to pass a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida.