Pensacola, Florida
Friday June 22nd 2018


Passing the Joint

Is Florida Ready for Medical Marijuana?
By Jeremy Morrison

Hustling the halls of Tallahassee, Jodi James and Bob Jordan are on a mission. They’ve been at it for weeks, since the 2013 legislative session began.

“Am I optimistic?” said Jordan. “I have to be.”

The Vietnam vet has joined James for some shoe-leather politicking. Talking to any legislator that will listen.

“You talk to ’em in the hallway, you talk to ’em in the elevator, you talk to ‘em in the office,” Jordan said. “That’s the way things happen over here, as I understand it.”

When they’re able to bend a lawmaker’s ear, they urge them to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes—a one-time pipe dream that seems evermore realistic with each passing election cycle.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. We’re confident of that, every office we go in knows that,” said James, the executive director of Florida Cannabis Action Network (FLCAN). “They understand this is coming.”

For Jordan, this mission is personal.

“I don’t feel like a criminal, I really don’t,” Jordan explained. “I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. It’s a moral thing for me. What? Am I suppose to let my wife die?”

Having suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—since the 1980s, Cathy Jordan hit upon marijuana as a sort of wonder drug. It eased her aching and the shaking, helped her find an appetite and cleared her bronchial tube of phlegm.

Jordan credits marijuana with helping her far outlive the five-year, ALS life expectancy death sentence doctors handed her. During the more than 20 years since her diagnosis, she has become a passionate advocate for legalization and is currently the president of FLCAN.

In late February, the Jordan’s home in Parrish was raided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities walked away with a number of marijuana plants Bob was growing on the property. Walked away with his wife’s medicine.

“Anyone else who loves their wife would do the same,” Jordan said. “It’s a plant you can grow like a tomato.”

Days before the raid, the Jordans had met with state legislators to discuss a bill aimed at legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. Two days after the raid, Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) introduced SB 1250—the already-titled Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act—in the Senate. The day after that, Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation) filed a similar bill in the House.

“I filed the bill mainly out of compassion,” Sen. Clemens said. “It’s hard to look ’em in the eye and not try to help.”

Not That Hip

This isn’t the first time marijuana advocates have pushed for change in Florida. But it might be the first time such a notion hasn’t sounded completely crazy, like something from Outer Space—or California.

“Obviously, with what happened last fall in Colorado and Washington, you’re seeing a shift,” Clemens said.

Last November was a big month for marijuana in America. For the first time, voters in two states legalized pot for recreational purposes. That means that after a day of skiing the slopes in Steamboat Springs or touring the Space Needle in Seattle, people can go get stoned. Legally. Just because they want to.

The recreational moves of Colorado and Washington represent a gigantic leap, but they come only after years of a determined shuffle, which has seen 18 states and the District of Columbia loosen laws to allow for medical marijuana. Florida has stumbled alongside this shuffle-parade since the beginning with a series of go-nowhere efforts.

In 1996, California became the first state to allow for medical marijuana after voters passed Proposition 215. That same year, remembers Kim Russell, director of People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFMM), there was also a ballot initiative in the Sunshine State.

“1996 was the very beginning of the movement,” Russell said, noting that the initiative fizzled after a couple of years. “Florida is not that hip.”

While legalization talk has long lived on the fringe of Florida politics, the PUFMM director feels such conversation may now be more palatable—“for each state that turns it makes it easier for us”—more realistic. At least that’s what some serious people are telling her.

“It’s an issue that’s becoming less controversial as the days go on,” said Ben Pollara.

Pollara—a South Florida political strategist with significant connections to the establishment—recently signed on as PUFMM’s treasurer and is one of several heavy hitters giving the organization’s current ballot initiative an air of legitimacy. He is joined by Orlando-based attorney John Morgan—a Democratic fundraiser, presidential dinner guest and boss of former Gov. Charlie Crist—who has taken the reins as PUFMM’s chairman and vowed to invest some of his personal fortune into the 2014 ballot initiative. Eric Sedler—a former business partner of current presidential advisor David Axelrod—is also in the mix.

Pollara and pals afford the movement inroads with the likes of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. PUFFMM co-founder Russell has framed the additions as a blessing.

“The team we are putting together have the expertise to get the job done right,” she said in a statement to supporters. “This is exactly what we have been working towards for four years. God is hearing our prayers—keep up the good work!”

Such serious people have until now watched from the sidelines. But the dynamics of the game have shifted and the A-team appears ready to play.

“It’s something that I’ve been passionate about for a while,” Pollara explained. “It’s something I thought about doing a couple of years ago, but the polls were not as good. It’s a different ballgame now than it was two years ago.”

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott’s then-advisor Tony Fabrizio polled the issue of legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. The results were notable: nearly six in 10 voters would approve of such a Constitutional amendment.

This year, PUFMM commissioned David Beattie—Sen. Nelson’s pollster—to field the issue again. The results—suggesting that seven out of 10 Florida voters now favor legalization—have demanded attention. The poll showed support across party and demographic lines.

“Florida is a reliably conservative state, a purple state, so I was a little surprised, but not really,” Pollara said. “This is not the same state as it was four years ago, eight years ago or 10 years ago.”

While the PUFMM poll showed the strongest support in areas such as South Florida and Orlando, medical marijuana proponents also consider the Panhandle in play.

“Actually, what I find with the folks in North Florida,” said Clemens, “is that they’re very independent and want government out of their business.”

Total Absorption or Intercepted?

In the 1970s, a teen-age Barack Obama enjoyed his Honolulu afternoons getting high, taking “roof hits” in a VW bus and perfecting a smoking technique he and his friends called “total absorption” or “TA” for short.

When a joint was making the rounds, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss’s 2012 Obama-biography, the future president apparently liked to jump ahead in rotation. He would shout “intercepted!,” and take an extra hit.

It was a simpler time. President Richard Nixon had only recently ushered in America’s War on Drugs and marijuana was illegal across the board.

Things are different now. Obama doesn’t get stoned anymore and America is a patchwork of conflicting laws.

While 18 states have laws on the books that sanction marijuana to whatever degree, the federal government still considers it to be an illegal drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency routinely raids establishments that are considered legitimate in-state.

The Obama Administration has offered a conflicted response to this state-driven issue. The October 2009 Ogden Memo indicates that federal resources shouldn’t be focused “on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” But the June 2011 Cole Memorandum cited the federal Controlled Substances Act and clarified that “the Ogden Memo was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law.”

A month after Colorado and Washington voters legalized weed, President Obama sat down with ABC’s Barbara Walters. When asked about the issue, he said the administration had “bigger fish to fry.”

“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” Obama told Walters.

The president said Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department would be studying the legal questions surrounding conflicting federal and state laws.

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama said in the December interview. “I head up the executive branch, we’re suppose to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”

Earlier this month, Holder said he would soon decide how best to deal with the issue. In the mean time, the United Nations has indicated that allowing the state laws to stand would violate international drug treaties.

Also at the federal level, two pieces of marijuana-centric legislation have been introduced in the House. A proposed bill from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) would create a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana, while a bill proposed by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances and allow for its regulation, much like alcohol.

As D.C. mulls the matter over, states that have green-lit medical—and, now, recreational—marijuana, move ahead into unchartered waters.

“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said a few days after his state passed Amendment 64. “This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

Miracle Medicine or Gateway Drug?

If the legalistic questions surrounding marijuana seem sticky, the scientific ones also beg for more definitive answers. Depending on whom you ask, marijuana is either a miracle or a mess.

Advocate groups such as NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, point to studies that indicate pot is useful in treating conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, ALS, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain. In states with medical laws, doctors are prescribing marijuana for anxiety and appetite stimulation, while researchers are increasingly focused on emerging data that suggests cannabinoids can reduce the spread of specific cancer cells.

Opponents of medical marijuana, and marijuana legalization, in general, point to the federal government’s refusal to budge from its long held position that pot is a harmful drug with high potential for addictiveness. This camp takes a more traditional view of marijuana as a gateway drug, and validates their position with statements from the DEA, the FDA and the American Medical Association.

What’s a Win?

Paul Nightingale doesn’t know what a victory in the War on Drugs might look like.

“I have no idea whatsoever,” he said. “Ask anyone in government what does it mean to win the War on Drugs and they can’t tell you.”

The former prosecutor supposes a victory might mean lower addiction and crime rates.

“But that’s what we’ve been trying to do for 40 years,” he said.

Nightingale is currently a criminal defense attorney in Pittsburgh. He is also a member of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Founded in 2002, LEAP is a group of current and former members of the criminal justice community. The group advocates for the legalization of pot, for its regulation and taxation.

Nightingale pointed out that Raymond Shafer, a former Pennsylvania governor and the chairman of President Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also lobbied for legalization.

As congress drafted the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, Nixon formed the commission to study marijuana abuse in the United States. Marijuana had been slated for the most restrictive Schedule I category pending the commission’s report.

Shafer’s commission instead debunked years of Reefer Madness-esque misconceptions, questioned prohibition and concluded that “the use of drugs for pleasure or other non-medical purposes is not inherently irresponsible.” The report was, obviously, shelved in favor of the War on Drugs.

Nightingale feels the country’s current laws have proven a failure. While drugs flow freely through American society and a black market thrives, countless people have had their lives negatively impacted by repressive policies.

“Try getting student loans, try getting advanced degrees, try getting professional licenses with any kind of drug conviction,” he said, mentioning that the country’s laws have proven particularly trying for minorities. “We incarcerate our minorities at a higher rate than even the system in South Africa.”

Like Florida, Pennsylvania also has medical marijuana legislation on the table this year.

“But that bill,” Nightingale explained, “is introduced into a Republican controlled senate and the House is controlled by Republicans, as is the Governor’s house and Pennsylvania is pretty socially conservative—we’re not all that optimistic that we’ll even get a committee hearing.”

The Straight Dope

In 2010, voters in California tried and failed to pass Proposition 19—the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act—that would have legalized marijuana in the state. CALM got up and running a couple of years before that.

“We started back in 2008 because we anticipated this was coming,” recalled Scott Chipman, CALM’s Southern California co-chair.

CALM, or Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, was formed to combat Prop. 19, but the organization is still active and opposes legalization efforts of any kind. Last November particularly pained the folks in CALM.

“Every inch that has been given to allow for marijuana for medical reasons has been stretched into 100 miles,” Chipman said. “There’s going to be a portion of this generation—Colorado and Washington children—who are going to be susceptible to this way of thinking about marijuana. They will become addicted.”

Members of CALM believe that California’s medical allowances are a farce. Anyone—“if you get a doctor’s recommendation from some shiesty doctor”—can walk into a medical marijuana dispensary and buy a bag of herb.

“Members of our coalition have spent thousands of hours standing and watching who goes in and comes out of these so-called dispensaries,” Chipman said, contending that most of the state’s marijuana users are recreationally driven.

Legalization opponents argue that relaxing marijuana laws would be bad for society. They are worried what impact the medical movement is having on American culture.

“Everybody basically has a family member, or knows somebody with a family member, who has lost years or lost decades, or lost motivation while they have been addicted to marijuana,” Chipman said. “—what’s even more frightening is the perception that marijuana does harm is dramatically decreasing since we identified it as medicinal.”

Chipman is comfortable with stereotypes. Stoners are stupid—“they are losing IQ!”—and marijuana is a worthless weed.

“The science is telling us that marijuana is dramatically harmful, particularly to the human brain,” he explained. “That’s why we call it ‘dope.’ That’s why we call heavy and chronic users ‘dopers.’”

In Florida, Calvina Fay is fighting against legalization efforts. She is the executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation—formally, Straight, Inc.—and co-founder of Save Our Society From Drugs.

“We help push back against bad bills that are proposed,” Fay said.

Charging that legalization advocates’ true aim is “building a marijuana empire,” Fay said the public has been misinformed of the plant’s medicinal qualities and disputed the notion of a societal shift toward legalization. Rather than a trend, she sees a series of well-funded and persistent campaigns.

“If you keep trying to pour water through a board without a hole in it,” Fay said, “eventually it’ll bore a hole in it. I don’t by any means see it as a trend.”

The Politics of the Politics of Pot

Roger Stone is a flamboyant political consultant and strategist with a tattoo of Nixon—his former boss—emblazoned across his back. He is very pro-pot. He’s also threatening a 2014 gubernatorial run in Florida.

“The prospect of a pot initiative on the 2014 ballot is particularly delicious because it will make every Florida candidate that year take a stand on the issue,” Stone wrote recently in a Huffington Post opinion piece.

A ballot initiative, sure to attract left-leaning voters, would also probably help Stone’s gubernatorial prospects. A former Republican—he worked for Nixon, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan—Stone switched to the Libertarian Party in 2012.

With Stone stepping onto the stage—and Crist, who works for PUFMM’s Morgan, also hinting at a run at Tallahassee—the state’s medical marijuana conversation has taken on a political feel.

This doesn’t sit well with FLCAN’s James.

“I’m very concerned they’re trying to make this partisan,” she said. “I refuse to take part in anything that is going to be a partisan issue. The only way this is a Democratic issue is if only Democrats get sick, and that’s not accurate.”

If Not This Year…

So far, the medical marijuana bills sitting in Tallahassee have yet to gain traction, or a committee hearing. And the 2014 ballot initiative—with its signature requirement and 60 percent approval threshold—is a long shot at best.

Everyone understands this.

“We still might be a little ahead of the curve, but all we can do is keep pushing forward,” said Sen. Clemens.

And while the conversation continues across the country and at the federal level, it still sounds a little like crazy-talk here in Florida.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” said PUFFM’s Pollara. “Florida would be the first southern state to pass something like this. Again, it’s not a small lift.”

But the Jordans believe that the heavy lifting will eventually payoff. That’s why Bob continues to lug such a weight around the state capitol.

“If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s coming. Whether they like it or not, medical cannabis is coming. If not this year, then next.”


Other Bills Before Florida Lawmakers

Public Input, SB 50, HB 23
These bills would guarantee the public’s right to speak at public meetings. There have been questions as to whether such a right is covered by Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.

The Competitive Workforce Act, HB 653, SB 710
This pair of bills update Florida’s Civil Rights Act of 1992 to include protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Guns, HB 1229 , SB 1678
There are a few gun-related bills in play this legislative session. These two would require people to complete an anger management class before purchasing firearms or ammunition. Others attempt to rework Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, allow local governments to ban guns in certain instances. None of these are expected to survive.

Domestic Partnership, HB 259, SB 196
Dubbed the Families First bills, these proposals allow couples—same-sex or heterosexual—to register as domestic partners. It would afford domestic partners limited rights, such as hospital visitations, buying real estate and making funeral arrangements.

Abortion, HB 396, SB 1056
Local Sen. Greg Evers is sponsoring the Florida for Life Act in the Senate. This bill would effectively prohibit abortions in the state. In the House, Rep. Charles Van Zant filed a similar bill on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Citizens Insurance, HB 7093, SB 1622
These two bills are among several dealing with Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. The aim is to funnel policies away from Citizens, meant to be an insurer of last-resort.

Texting and Driving, HB 13, SB 52, etc.
There are a number of bills in play this legislative session that address texting while driving. Florida is one of five states without laws addressing the practice. This year’s proposals leave loopholes, but are still seen as a progressive step.

Plastic Bags Ban, HB 957, SB 722
These bills were introduced in order to establish uniform criteria for local governments to use if they choose to pursue ordinances restricting retail checkout bags. Proposed criteria include an outright ban on plastic bags and a 10-cent fee for paper bags.

Sunshine Protection Act, SB 734
This proposed act would require that the “state of Florida and its political subdivisions observe daylight saving time year-round.”

Let Them Buy Growlers, SB 1344, HB 715
Currently, Florida law limits the sale of growlers—glass jugs of beer—to 32 oz. or less, or one gallon or more; the standard market size of a growler in the U.S. is 64 oz. If passed, these bills will allow brewers more flexibility.