1. Opinion

Times recommends: Vote no on Amendment 2, medical marijuana

Supporters of a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in Florida have made a good-faith effort to help people in severe pain. No one wants to see family members, friends or neighbors suffer. But this well-intentioned attempt to provide relief is not the way to address this difficult issue. Amendment 2 is too broad, and voters should reject it.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Most have approved the drug's use through legislative statute and have tweaked the measures along the way as they spotted problems. The Florida Legislature has resisted attempts to legalize medical marijuana through state law, leaving supporters to seek relief by amending the Florida Constitution. Personal injury lawyer John Morgan led the effort to secure the signatures necessary to get the amendment on the ballot. The Tampa Bay Times' editorial board supported a Florida Supreme Court decision that found the ballot language was clear and not misleading, paving the way for voters to have their say on the Nov. 4 ballot. But while the language is clear, the substance of the amendment remains problematic.

Amendment 2 would allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients who have a debilitating disease. Qualifying patients would receive identification cards from the Department of Health and be allowed to pick up the recommended dosage from state-regulated dispensaries. Licensed caregivers would be allowed to administer the drug to qualifying patients. The health department would regulate the industry.

First, the amendment plays too fast and loose with the conditions a patient must have to get a doctor's approval for medical marijuana. Cancer, glaucoma, HIV or multiple sclerosis are among the eight diseases that are specifically listed as debilitating diseases that qualify. But the amendment also allows doctors to recommend marijuana use for "other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." That leaves a gaping loophole for even well-meaning doctors to exploit. Other states that have legalized medical marijuana have a closed list of treatable conditions and require approval by a state agency such as the health department to make additions.

Second, the amendment fails to set strict limits on caregivers' qualifications. The amendment only requires that caregivers be 21 years old to obtain and dispense medical marijuana for a qualifying patient. This opens the door for abuse by caregivers with dishonest intentions.

Finally, the amendment would give civil and criminal immunity to qualifying patients, caregivers, physicians and marijuana treatment centers and their employees. There is disagreement in the legal community about exactly what this means. Supporters say it simply allows the entities to possess medical marijuana without penalty and that all parties would still be liable for misuse. Opponents argue that the amendment provides a broad license to be above the law.

Opponents have raised other practical issues about medical marijuana, including zoning concerns related to where patients can smoke it or the location of dispensaries. Those are legitimate concerns that have been successfully addressed in other states, usually by tweaking laws until legislators got it just right. But a constitutional amendment cannot be changed without another vote by Floridians, and the Department of Health and state lawmakers may not have enough discretion to fill in the blanks or make adjustments.

There is a reason why medical marijuana advocates chose to pursue relief through a constitutional amendment. The Legislature has refused to act, and there has been no other viable alternative. Still, legalizing medical marijuana in Florida by state statute rather than the Constitution remains the smartest approach.

On occasion, the Legislature has demonstrated it can tackle tough issues. With enough political pressure, lawmakers should be able to legalize medical marijuana. They took a bold step this spring when they approved a form of noneuphoric marijuana that is used to treat children with seizures. Lawmakers should stand up again.

Floridians in pain should be able to use marijuana for medical use, and the Legislature should figure out how to make it available. But writing such broad language into the Florida Constitution makes it too difficult to control the use of medical marijuana and to make adjustments along the way.

On Amendment 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.