TAMPA - An audience of several hundred people, largely students, was clearly on the side of legalizing medical marijuana during an debate at the University of Tampa tonight, enlivened by heated exchanges involving the proposal's leading sponsor, trial lawyer John Morgan.
The two sides got testy and the crowd got lively when the two opponents of the proposal, an antidrug activist physician from Kansas and a public policy expert from the University of Florida, accused proponents of wanting to legalize marijuana fully and advocating an untested, possibly dangerous medication.
Morgan responded by questioning their qualifications, sincerity and compassion for the sick and dying in tough language.
The opponents' points drew catcalls and boos from the crowd, and police ejected one attendee who repeatedly shouted interruptions.
Morgan, joined by Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, debated physician Eric Voth of the Institute on Global Drug Policy and Kevin Sabet, director of UF's Drug Policy Institute.
Morgan opened the debate denying that anyone wants to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
"Legalization, decriminalization ... that's not the issue for this year," he said. "The issue is very simple ... legalization of medical marijuana.
"It works for a lot of people. A lot of really sick people. I don't know why it works, but it works."
But Voth called the proposal "a Trojan horse."
"It is about legalization - the marijuana lobby is driving that and targeting that," Voth said.
Sabet called it a "brilliant public relations strategy" on the part of pro-marijuana forces "to use sick people to move toward legalization.''
He and Voth repeatedly pointed out that the pro-marijuana debate team included no physicians, and that the Florida Medical Association and other medical and physician associations have opposed medical use of marijuana - "every recognizable scientific or medical organization" that has considered the issue, said Sabet. "When I see that, I don't have to ask any more questions."
Voth and Sabet said the amendment would lead to people giving an untested and unregulated drug to children, possibly buying it from sleazy merchandisers.
"What we need to do is figure out the things in marijuana that are effective medicines, and we're very close to doing that, figure out what the effective doses are and bring it to market," Voth said.
They said the federal Food and Drug Administration is now testing a marijuana derivative, Sativax, that they said should be able to deliver all the potentially helpful medicinal effects of marijuana in a controlled, tested form. Now, they said, marijuana has been shown to have potential harmful side effects, including depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies - as well as impaired driving..
Morgan responded, "I don't trust the FDA," drawing a cheer from the crowd.
There's no reason, he said, why suffering people who find relief from using marijuana should have to wait for the government and the pharmaceutical industry, which he said hopes to make money off a new drug, to attempt to replicate marijuana's effects.
"I trust an organic plant,'' Morgan said. "There has never been one death as a result of marijuana."
Morgan added that he objects to "a guy from a cornfield in Iowa telling me what my motives are" - an apparent reference to Voth, who's from Kansas.
He later said Sabet, "a political science major," has no more qualifications to discuss the matter than Morgan, and that Voth might prescribe oxycodone for pain, even though it's highly addictive and "kills 16,000 people a year."
Though popular with the crowd, those remarks apparently angered Voth and Sabet.
"It's hard to have a civil conversation with someone who is so disagreeable," said Sabet, who added that he's proud to be a public policy graduate from Oxford and didn't like Morgan's "vitriolic and personal attacks."
The audience included several people with severe health problems who said they use medical marijuana, including Cathy Jordan of Parrish, who's severely disabled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Her house was raided a year ago by what Morgan called "a SWAT team" because her husband, Bob, was growing marijuana to ease her symptoms.
Destruction of his plants "put her life in danger," forcing him to buy marijuana off the street, said Bob Jordan.
The two were never charged, and are now permitted to grow marijuana.
"I'm really hoping the Republicans will work with us," Cathy Jordan said, speaking with difficulty. "Some people can't wait."