Court Faces Sharp Divide Over Medical Marijuana

, Daily Business Review

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To supporters, the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida is clear.

"The proposed medical marijuana amendment poses a single and unified question to Florida voters," attorneys for a group backing the measure said in a legal brief Friday. "Should an individual with a debilitating disease or medical condition, who has been so diagnosed by a licensed Florida physician, be lawfully allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes so long as they meet a number of conditions?"

But to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Republican legislative leaders and some politically powerful opponents, the proposal isn't clear enough—and should not be allowed on the November 2014 ballot.

"The proposal hides the fact that the amendment would make Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states, allowing use for limitless 'other conditions' specified by any physician," Bondi's office said in another brief Friday. "With no 'condition' off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age. 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—those suffering 'debilitating diseases.' "

The Florida Supreme Court will try to sort through the conflicting arguments during a hearing Dec. 5, a key step in deciding whether voters will see the issue next fall.

Justices are not supposed to consider the merits of constitutional amendments, such as whether decriminalizing medical marijuana would be a good thing for the state. Instead, they look at the ballot title and summary—the wording that voters see at the polls—to determine whether the proposed constitutional changes are accurately described. Also, justices look to make sure the proposals deal with single subjects.

Even if the Supreme Court signs off on the proposal, that does not mean the medical-marijuana amendment will go on the ballot. The group spearheading the proposal, People United for Medical Marijuana, still would need to get 683,149 valid petition signatures.

Bondi and Republican legislative leaders gained more legal firepower Friday when a coalition of influential groups filed a brief with the Supreme Court seeking to keep the measure off the ballot. Those groups include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.

The briefs outline the key issues in the legal battle. Perhaps the biggest issue focuses on whether the wording accurately describes the breadth of the proposed changes.

The summary says, in part, that the amendment would allow the "medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician." The full text of the proposed amendment defines a debilitating medical condition by specifying diseases such as cancer, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis and also includes "other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."

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