Florida Groups Seek Legal Status For Pot

Nov 28, 2012

Florida advocates for liberalizing marijuana laws  felt the rush on Nov. 6 when two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized marijuana and Massachusetts approved its use for medical purposes.

So they really like their chances for their own proposed measures, two for medical and one for out-and-out legalization.

Reefer Madness: Times have changed and advocates for legal pot hope attitudes have, too.

Public pot opinion has evolved and more Americans now favor legalizing marijuana than oppose it, according to a June poll by Angus Reid. In the state of Washington, just before the successful legalization vote, polls showed it was supported by just about everybody (everybody, that is, except people who were already in the medical marijuana business).

There is still a struggle with real issues. For instance, if you smoke pot, are you likely to progress to harder and more dangerous drugs? At Yale, they're thinking...yeah, maybe.

NORML Is Optimistic

But, in Florida, the campaign is on. Starting with what may be the least likely to succeed, the state chapter of NORML -- the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws -- will try to persuade legislators to legalize pot with a bill to regulate and tax it.

"I think that once they realize that this is a new way we can stimulate the economy and not risk anybody's harm, they'll see there's no benefit to continuing to criminalize and imprison people," NORML lawyer Michael Minardi gushed optimistically on Jacksonville public station WJCT's "First Coast Connect" program.

But just in case the Legislature declines that opportunity, Minardi says, NORML is also gathering petition signatures to bring a medical marijuana constitutional amendment to the ballot.

Will Bondi Help?

Like NORML, the Florida Cannabis Action Network also supports full legalization but its first step will be asking the Legislature to approve it for medical purposes. There's a fierce dog guarding that door: Conservative Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former prosecutor, would first have to untie the Legislature's hands by removing pot from the Schedule 1 list of drugs that, like heroin and cocaine, are considered to have no medical value.

Bondi's people are telling FLCAN not to hold its breath, according to a Sunshine State News story.

Seeking Signatures

The third effort does not involve the Legislature at all, at least not yet. An organization called People United for Medical Marijuana has also launched an initiative to amend the state constitution with language that sanctions pot for medical use. Its leader is Orlando resident Kim Russell, a stay-at-home mother who says pot was a life and sanity saver during the illness of a member of her family.

'I would not have started this mission and put so much time into this just to protect people's right to party.' - Kim Russell, medical marijuana advocate

"I would not have started this mission and put so much time into this just to protect people's right to party," Russell says. "It is truly a medicine. It is saving people's lives."

But she also recognizes that medical marijuana will make a lot of money for the first-in entrepreneurs, such as those already in the legal pot business in California and Colorado.

"Right now, they're out in Colorado and California where they can already make money," she said. "As soon as the Florida market opens up they'll be heading out here as fast as anything."

Tough Laws

After four years of signature gathering in every Florida county, PUMM hasn’t quite gathered the roughly 67,000 signatures it needs to trigger Florida Supreme Court review of its ballot question. It takes 10 times that number, roughly 676,000, to bring the question to the voters.

Where we are now: Florida marijuana penalties are severe though rarely imposed. They call for five years in prison for possession of more than 20 grams of pot (enough for 20-30 joints, according to various Internet sources). There is a legal "medical necessity" defense, but it can only by asserted after charges have been filed. Misdemeanor possession -- again, theoretically -- can lead to a year in jail.