Reefer madness hits the Sunshine State

by H.B. Koplowitz

Floridians won’t vote on legalizing medical marijuana until November, but reefer madness has already hit the Sunshine State.

Amendment 2 needs 60 percent to pass, and some surveys indicate upwards of 80 percent of Florida voters support legalization of medical pot for people with debilitating diseases. The ballot measure has the financial backing of John Morgan, a millionaire personal injury attorney, Democratic donor and ally of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, and organizational support from Democratic operative Ben Pollara, who is managing the United for Care campaign.  Whether or not the ballot measure is a ploy by Democrats to drive Crist voters to the polls, legalizing medical marijuana has suddenly become more than a pipe dream in Florida.

But then came Adelson. Sheldon Adelson, the 81-year-old mercurial billionaire, casino magnate, über-Zionist and Republican mega donor, who dumped $2.5 million into the Vote No on 2 campaign. Vote No on 2 was organized by Mel Sembler, the head of a group called Drug Free America. He’s also a shopping center mogul, former ambassador and Republican fundraiser, who from 1976 to 1993 ran Straight Inc., a chain of boot-camp-style juvenile drug-rehab centers that were accused of abusing teen pot smokers.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, whose members benefit greatly from drug asset-forfeiture laws, has also started a group called Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot. And the latest polls indicate support for Amendment 2 is hovering around 57 percent, with many voters still undecided.

Meantime, Gov. Rick Scott signed a GOP-backed bill that legalizes the medical use of a strain of cannabis that doesn’t get people high, which has been found to help children with a rare form of epilepsy. According to David Jones of the Florida Cannabis Action Network — the oldest marijuana advocacy organization in the state, which was not directly involved in the referendum effort — the new law has misled some voters to think Florida has already legalized medical marijuana.

Supporters of Amendment 2 are focusing their campaign on “compassionate care” for people with debilitating diseases. Opponents are focusing on everything else. They say legalizing medical marijuana would turn Florida into a Mecca for potheads, where cannabis seekers from other states would flock to a land of marijuana dispensaries on every corner and cannabis farms sprouting hither and yon. Their most notorious ad suggests that pot, in the form of marijuana-laced cookies, could become the next date-rape drug for sexual predators.

In an eight-minute pseudo-documentary called “The Devil Is in the Details,” the opponents zero in on what they consider to be a fatal flaw in Amendment 2, which allows doctors to “recommend” cannabis for people with “debilitating medical conditions” such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease “or other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.” The opponents say that last clause is a giant loophole that would result in de facto decriminalization of recreational pot.

Supporters of medical marijuana say the horror stories are overblown. Although Florida CAN’s ultimate goal is to end marijuana prohibition, CAN Executive Director Jodi James disagreed that the clause could result in decriminalization. She said the wording is necessary to cover medical conditions that future research determines can be treated with marijuana. “If people thought the ballot measure would benefit potheads, they wouldn’t vote for it,” she said.

But if Florida were like other states that have legalized medical marijuana, it would indeed result in more people having legal access to cannabis. And instead of denying the loophole, supporters of Amendment 2 should embrace it. Marijuana seekers flocking to Florida would contribute to one of the state’s major industries, which is tourism, and all those pot dispensaries and farms would become a new industry of small businesses that hire workers and pay taxes, further boosting the state’s economy.

Imagine you are the parent of a teenage son or daughter you suspect of using marijuana. Do you have “the talk” and hope for the best? Put your daughter in a boot camp drug-rehab facility? Turn your son in to the police? You are afraid of what pot will do to your child’s brain, but you are just as afraid of what could happen if your child is caught with marijuana. Arrest, conviction, incarceration and brutalization, expulsion from school, difficulty getting a job, losing the right to vote and all the other things that come from having a criminal record. Now imagine your child is black, knowing that minorities get pulled over, profiled, frisked, arrested and convicted for petty drug offenses far more often than whites. Like giving young people condoms, letting them have medical marijuana ID cards may send a wrong message, but it’s one less thing, one less big thing, for a parent to worry about.

Now imagine you are an average, middle-age, middle-class parent who smokes pot yourself. You are driving down the street, the cops pull you over for a broken tail light and they find a joint in your ashtray. You have become one of the roughly 50,000 people a year in Florida who get busted for simple possession of pot. Not only can you go to jail, but even if you are never charged, authorities can confiscate your vehicle. Permanently. If you are caught growing a few plants in your backyard, they can take your house. You can go to prison, lose your job and perhaps your family. Unless Amendment 2 passed and you took advantage of the loophole to get a doctor’s recommendation. You might still get busted for DUI, but at least you’d get to keep your car.

As its supporters say, Amendment 2 could improve the quality of life for some people with debilitating diseases. As its opponents say, the ballot measure has a loophole that could result in many more people having legal access to pot. Both are excellent reasons for Floridians to vote yes on Amendment 2.

© H.B. Koplowitz 9/12/14

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