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Florida justices to hear arguments on medical pot

TALLAHASSEE — The battle over medical marijuana moves to the state’s highest court on Thursday, when advocates argue for and against the state’s proposed ballot question.

The measure aims to create a state constitutional amendment, to be voted on in 2014, decriminalizing marijuana to treat “debilitating conditions” such as AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.

The fight before the justices is technical, centering on whether the ballot summary is clear and accurate.

People United for Medical Marijuana, the committee behind the initiative and led by personal-injury attorney John Morgan, thinks it is. Morgan is friend and recent employer to Charlie Crist, now Democratic candidate for governor.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who joined with the Republican-majority Legislature to oppose the measure, argues the language is misleading and would make Florida “one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states.”

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical marijuana under state law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A ruling by the Florida Supreme Court against the initiative likely will be fatal to the effort to get it on the ballot in time for the 2014 election. The state’s constitution requires a decision no later than April 1.

As of Monday, the state’s Division of Elections reported 133,296 valid signatures toward the 683,149 needed by February to get the initiative on the ballot. There were 14,198 signatures from Hillsborough County, 10,163 from Pinellas and 3,673 from Pasco.

Rod Sullivan, a constitutional law professor at Jacksonville’s Florida Coastal School of Law, said Bondi’s argument is the stronger. He predicts defeat for the pro-marijuana forces.

“The title and the (summary) have to tell people what they’re voting on,” he said. “They don’t really even come close … (The language) doesn’t really make it clear that a physician can prescribe marijuana for virtually anything.”

By leaving “no condition off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age,” Bondi, a Republican, argued in a brief.

“But rather than tell voters of this extraordinary scope, the summary uses language to prey on voters’ understandable sympathies for Florida’s most vulnerable patients,” she said. “If voters are asked to open Florida to expansive marijuana use, they deserve to know it.”

In its brief, People United for Medical Marijuana counters that the proposed amendment can’t and shouldn’t try to define every possible condition to be treated with marijuana, “but should and does allow proper scope for medical judgment.”

Bondi also argues the summary wrongly suggests “medical marijuana is permissible under federal law.” In fact, marijuana is still a controlled substance under federal law, making the distribution of marijuana a federal crime.

But in October 2009, the Obama administration encouraged federal prosecutors not to make cases against people who legally distribute medical marijuana under a state law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice updated the non-enforcement policy, deferring to states’ rights in regulating medical marijuana, but reserving the right “to challenge the states at any time they feel necessary,” the conference’s website says.

“Medical marijuana is an idea whose time has come,” said Donald M. Jones, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami.

That said, he admits that procedural arguments — such as those used by Bondi — usually sway appellate courts “concerned with formalism.”

Still, “substance here is more important than form,” Jones added, and the court previously has split in favor of progressive issues.

“This is a case where the social policy so strongly favors the embrace of medical marijuana that I think the court will err on the side of evolution of drug policy,” he said.

Florida voters support medical marijuana 82 percent to 16 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last month.

“If the folks who want to legalize medical marijuana in Florida can get their proposal on the ballot, they are overwhelmingly favored to prevail next November,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the university’s polling institute.

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