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Q&A: The Effort To Make Medical Marijuana Legal In Florida


Organizers who want medical marijuana legalized in Florida have completed the first step toward getting a proposed constitutional amendment on next year's ballot. 

The United For Care campaign says medical marijuana is legally providing relief and therapeutic value to residents in 19 states and the District of Columbia, so why not Florida?

The group People United for Medical Marijuana has gathered enough signatures to submit their proposal to the Florida Supreme Court for review, but it’s still far less than the nearly 700,000 signatures required to get the proposal on the ballot.

The court will determine whether the proposal meets constitutional requirements. The ballot language can only cover one subject and must be easy to understand. If the court approves, paid petition gatherers have until February 1 to get the necessary voter signatures verified.

Orlando attorney John Morgan is helping fund the effort. He says marijuana helped ease the pain for father as he was dying of cancer 20 years ago. Morgan's law firm employs former Gov. Charlie Crist, who may decide to run for governor again, this time as a Democrat.

United for Care campaign manager and treasurer Ben Pollara says this initiative has nothing to do with getting Crist back in the Governor’s Mansion, as critics have suggested. We spoke with Pollara about the push to make marijuana legal medicine in Florida.

Q: What is the proposal you're hoping to put on the 2014 ballot?

Pollara: We have ballot language drafted and in a petition form right now to put language on the 2014 ballot that would legalize medical marijuana for use by qualifying patients. We define qualifying patients in the amendment as individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a physician where the benefits of the use of medical marijuana would outweigh the potential harms.

The amendment would remove criminal and civil penalties from qualifying patients, physicians who recommend the use of medical marijuana, caregivers who assist with the administration of medical marijuana to people who are...very debilitated and weak.

We also set up a regulatory structure through the state Department of Health that allows the state to keep a database of the folks that are qualifying patients (and) caregivers; to register treatment centers that would grow, produce, and distribute medical marijuana; to put safety and quality checks on the product coming out and to establish guidelines for quantities that people can have.

Q: Who's behind this initiative?

Pollara: John Morgan (Orlando attorney) is the chairman of the organization and he's been our primary funder so far. He told me that this is an issue that was near and dear to his heart because his father – who passed about 20 years ago – had always been a big anti-drug, anti-marijuana guy. But in his last years of life he had esophageal cancer and emphysema. His brother Tim – who's a paraplegic – had used medical marijuana previously to treat a lot of the side effects of his disability and had brought it to his father. (It) allowed his dad to have a decent quality of life for his last months and allowed him to eat a decent meal and have a decent night's sleep without being in as much pain.

We've gotten a lot of small contributions and we've got a couple of other people who've made substantial contributions to the campaign. But John's the chairman of the organization and he's been really our number one financial supporter.

Q: You have some paid staffers, and then you are paying to collect all of these petition signatures because you have a lot to collect, right?

Pollara: We used a paid operation to get those first 100,000 signatures, and now we're in the process of building a huge volunteer army. We're hiring volunteer coordinators across the state. We've already got about 3,000 volunteers signed up, and we're really going to spend the next six weeks building our grassroots movement and a huge number of volunteers statewide to go out and collect petitions.

We stopped the paid petition drive once we hit the number of signatures that we needed to get Supreme Court review. Now we're ramping up the volunteer drive, and we will restart the paid petition drive somewhere around the time that the Supreme Court is expected to rule.

Q: Why is this so important and why now?

Pollara: Now is certainly the right time. We've polled it extensively. We've conducted two polls here throughout the course of the campaign that both show us at 70% or better approval. There have been two independent polls that I've seen out there – one public, one not – that have shown it around the same level.

There are thousands and thousands of people out there that are suffering from diseases where they could have a substantially better quality of life by using medical marijuana, and instead of being able to do so, they're being treated as criminals.

Q: What are your concerns about federal law usurping the states in this matter?

Pollara: The states have been legalizing medical marijuana for almost 20 years now. California was the first to do it back in 1996. While there has been some federal interference, it's been primarily limited to California. When California legalized medical marijuana, they did it in a very simple and kind of blanket way, which didn't allow the state to regulate the sale and use.

In states that have done this in a more controlled and regulated manner, there hasn't been a whole lot of federal interference