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Marijuana Backers Plot New Strategy

Jon Morgan
Associated Press
Jon Morgan

Supporters of medical marijuana may have lost their fight at the ballot box, but they're promising to take it back to the statehouse.

A day after Amendment 2 narrowly failed in Florida, the chairman and chief financier of the initiative said Wednesday that if lawmakers didn't successfully pursue the issue, it would be back before voters in 2016.

Jon Morgan
Credit Associated Press
Jon Morgan

"This is just the first battle and I plan to win the war," said Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who led the charge to pass the initiative, in part because of the suffering of his quadriplegic brother.

Morgan pledged to begin the process of putting medical marijuana back on the ballot in 2016. He thinks the fear of its possible impact on the country's biggest swing state during a presidential election may sway lawmakers to revisit the issue in Tallahassee and pass a medical marijuana law next session. He signaled openness to changing the wording of any future initiative and a willingness to spend more of his fortune on the effort.

Amendment 2's backers seemed, for a time, to have momentum on their side. Forums around the state filled up with supporters, who far outnumbered opponents. Celebrities including Jimmy Buffett and Melissa Etheridge lent their endorsement. One Quinnipiac University poll found nearly nine out of 10 Florida voters approved of medical marijuana.

And, in fact, the amendment garnered impressive margins: More than 880,000 more votes in favor than opposed, representing just under 58 percent of the electorate.

Nearly anywhere else, it would've become law. But Florida — unique with Illinois — requires a three-fifths majority to pass a constitutional amendment. That provision itself came into law under a ballot question in 2006 that put the stricter requirement before voters. It passed with nearly the same level of support as medical marijuana advocates achieved Tuesday.

"It's unfortunate that even when 58 percent of state voters say they want to let sick people have medical marijuana," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, "they're going to be denied because of a silly rule."

The loss in Florida came amid overall wins for marijuana nationally: Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Alaska voters approved recreational use of the drug Tuesday. Since California voters first legalized medical marijuana in 1996, 22 other states and the District of Columbia have followed.

Florida lawmakers passed a medical marijuana measure of their own this year, but worded it so narrowly that many who want the drug will be left out. It legalizes just very low-potency strains of marijuana beginning next year, but only for patients with cancer or a physical condition that brings chronic seizures or muscle spasms that can be helped by the drug.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which backs marijuana legalization, called the 60 percent threshold in Florida "bizarre and undemocratic." But he said the level of support shown by voters is what would resound across the South and around the country, buttressed by wins elsewhere.

"From a national perspective, it's a resounding victory," he said.

It's little consolation, though, to people like Jeff Lahman, a 46-year-old disabled Air Force veteran who hoped passage of Amendment 2 would bring some relief. He has chronic pain from fibromyalgia, tendinitis, arthritis and migraines, and was able to obtain medical marijuana for a short time before moving from Arizona to Lake Butler, Florida, three years ago. He said the difference brought by marijuana was like night and day.

Moving to Florida meant returning to the narcotics he relied on before trying marijuana: OxyContin, methadone and fentanyl. He refuses to break the law and obtain marijuana illegally, mindful that he has three daughters for whom he is an example. So he waits, again, for lawmakers to act.

"I'm hoping that these results are enough of a wake-up call to do something on their own," he said. "But I don't hold my breath that that's going to happen." 

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