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Legalizing Marijuana: The Conversation in Florida Has Begun

November 24, 2012 - 6:00pm

Encouraged by anti-prohibition ballot victories in three states Nov. 6, marijuana legalization advocates in the Sunshine State are bringing the fight for greater personal liberty and medical freedom straight to the Florida Capitol.

And theyre confident that reform is just what the doctor ordered.

I truly believe this is the year we're going to see some leadership on this issue, Jodi James, executive director of the Florida Cannabis Action Network (FLCAN), tells Sunshine State News. FLCAN calls itself the states leading cannabis (i.e., marijuana) reform group.

In Washington and Colorado, the people and their government have discovered that the sky didnt fall in after Nov. 6, and they were able to expand their regulation and control, she says. What we have right now in Florida is putting cannabis into the hands of black markets, criminals, terrorists, and people who would damage our society from the inside-out. Thats not control, but thats what you get with prohibition.

Three weeks ago, Colorado and Washington became the first two states in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational use, while Massachusetts became the 18th state to legalize it for medicinal purposes.

Marijuana is currently designated an illegal Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. Under both state and federal law, a substance is relegated to this category when the government determines:

The drug has no accepted medical value;

the drug has a high potential for abuse; and

the drug cannot safely be used under the care of a physician.

Although the federal government insists that the 18 state laws which have legalized marijuana (whether for recreational or medicinal purposes) run afoul of United States law and are invalid, as a matter of pragmatic fact the last two presidential administrations have made it their policy not to enforce the federal prohibitions in these states, though they have reserved the right to do so.

In Florida, where marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance, possession of more than 20 grams is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. State courts do recognize a medical necessity defense for possession, but it cannot be invoked until after someone has been arrested and charged.

FLCAN advocates for the full legalization of marijuana usage on the part of consenting adults, and toward that end hopes to convince Tallahassee to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes. Marijuana is prescribed by doctors in several states to treat a variety of conditions, from glaucoma to terminal cancer.

Having failed to make any headway in the Florida Legislature over the last several years, James and other FLCAN officers met Nov. 13 with representatives from Attorney General Pam Bondis office. Under state law, the attorney general is authorized to remove drugs from Schedule 1 after finding that additional testings, approvals, or scientific evidence ... indicate that controlled substances ... have a greater potential for beneficial medical use in treatment in the United States than was evident when they were originally classified.

We feel there is no drug that more clearly falls into the necessity for this emergency action [by the attorney general] than cannabis, James tells Sunshine State News. The fact that 18 states now allow doctors to prescribe [marijuana] is proof it obviously has medical value. With a stroke of a pen, the attorney general could remove [marijuana] from Schedule 1, and that would allow the Legislature and the public to have a conversation about how they want to control and regulate it.

Anti-prohibition advocates have had a hard time convincing state legislators to embrace their cause. In the 2012 session, five Democratic legislators sponsored a bill that would have placed medicinal marijuana legalization on the November ballot, but it was killed in the committee process.

That bills main sponsor, Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, has since been elected to the Florida Senate. James tells the News that Clemens plans to introduce legislation in favor of medicinal legalization, though the senators office did not return requests for comment before this article went to press.

FLCANs communications director, David B. Jones, shared with Sunshine State News the answers Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, gave to a questionnaire administered over the phone before the Nov. 6 election. Raschein purportedly told FLCAN she supports the removal of criminal penalties for possession of cannabis for nonmedical use, and supports some legalization of hemp, an industrial cousin of marijuana that can be used for textiles, some food products, and in the production of ethanol.

Raschein told Sunshine State News she had no intention of sponsoring any legislation in the direction of legalization, and would need more information before she committed to supporting medicinal cannabis.

I have had a number of legislators say to me, Jodi, I am not opposed to this if [House or Senate] leadership says that we are going to move on this; Im happy to support your issue if it comes up, James tells the News. I think its really up to the citizens of Florida at this point to decide whether or not this is a priority for their legislators.

James predicts that the medical needs of Floridas veterans and seniors might soon force lawmakers to act on this issue. In Florida, veterans can be denied medical benefits for testing positive for marijuana. James says thats not good for the states economy.

Do we want our snowbirds going to New Mexico and Arizona because of these restrictions? she asks.

The American Medical Association, American College of Physicians, and American Nursing Association all support the legalization of medical marijuana, and James insists the matter should be one of bipartisan concern.

This is truly a conservative issue, she explains. Its about smaller government, the right to privacy, the doctor-patient relationship. Fiscally conservative people dont want to pay to jail nonviolent drug users if theres something else that we can do.

Even if her group cannot achieve outright medical legalization this legislative session, James hopes they can at least pull off some more modest victories.

In Florida, if we cannot remove the criminal penalties for cannabis, we could at least push the criminal threshold for possession to 2 ounces, instead of the current 20 grams, she proposes. We could make 2 ounces a felony, make the rest a fine, and be no more liberal than Texas. When you talk about a hotbed of conservatism or liberalism, we know where Texas falls.

I dont want to be any more liberal than Texas ... this year.

Reach Eric Giunta ategiunta@sunshinestatenews.comor at (954) 235-9116.

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