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Gaetz, Weatherford challenging proposed medical marijuana amendment

The battle to get the medical marijuana issue to voters in 2014 has encountered one more challenge.

On Wednesday afternoon, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz submitted a notice of intent to file a brief to the Supreme Court as “interested persons” opposing the ballot initiative. 

The legislative leaders said they weren't addressing the issue of medical marijuana but the language in the ballot proposal, yet Weatherford said the amendment would put "marijuana shops on very street corner" if it passes.

The legislative leaders have joined Attorney General Pam Bondi, who on Oct. 24, sent the proposed medical marijuana constitutional amendment to the Florida Supreme Court and asked for an opinion on the petition’s validity. Bondi noted the conflict with federal law but said there are other reasons to throw it off the ballot.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Dec. 5. Like Bondi, Weatherford and Gaetz charged the wording is misleading and ambiguous.

In a memo Gaetz wrote to all senators, he stated that “regardless of the subject matter or whether we personally support the proposed petition initiative, efforts to hide the ball or appeal to voters by using language that evokes emotional responses are not appropriate for ballot titles and summaries of proposed constitutional amendments. This is a lesson in checks and balances that the Legislature has, in recent years, often been reminded of the hard way.”

In an email, Weatherford said if cleared by the Florida Supreme Court, legalizing medical marijuana would be “a decision that should be made by voters.”

But he added that “We firmly believe the wording of this amendment is not about legalizing marijuana for serious medical illnesses, but rather creating a path in our constitution for marijuana shops on every street corner. The ballot summary is misleading and the impact of this amendment is far, far greater than John Morgan and his supporters would like the public to know."

Morgan, who is leading the campaign, United for Care -- People United for Medical Marijuana, said the proposed ballot amendment states medical marijuana is only for the most debilitating injuries and illnesses.

“I don’t think there’s anything vague or misleading about the word debilitating,” said Morgan, whose law firm, Morgan & Morgan employs likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist. “Doctors in our state know what debilitating is and what it’s not.”

As for marijuana shops on every corner, Morgan said the state would be determining licensing and regulation of the medical marijuana industry. “I don’t know how that could happen (shops on every corner) unless the state allows it to happen.”

Morgan said the language of the amendment was drafted by constitutional scholar Jon Mills, a former speaker of the Florida House and constitutional law expert at the University of Florida.

Weatherford and Gaetz have had their own challenges when it comes to ballot summaries. Both of them voted along party lines to place an amendment on the 2012 ballot that would have repudiated the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which was passed by the federal government. The so-called "Health Freedom Act" was thrown off the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court in 2011, because it contained a misleading ballot summary. Legislators replaced it with a re-written amendment but voters rejected that.

As with the health care amendment, politics is shrouding the marijuana amendment. Morgan, an Orlando lawyer, employs former Gov. Charlie Crist who is expected to announce his intention to run for governor again, this time as a Democrat, on Monday. If the medical marijuana amendment makes it to the ballot, it is widely expected to draw voters to the polls who may not normally vote in mid-term elections and who could potentially give Crist a turnout advantage over Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Morgan denies the amendment is intended to produce a political result. He said United for Care has collected more than 200,000 petitions -- the group will need 683,149 by Feb. 1 for the amendment to be eligible for consideration in the 2014 general election ballot.

Ben Pollara, United for Care’s campaign manager, said opponents are "trying to play politics with an issue that is really about getting relief to people. If they aren’t challenging the merits, they should have let legislation go through.”

Bondi stated in her challenge sent to the Supreme Court that the amendment sets up a situation where Florida law would conflict with federal law since medical marijuana would be in legal in Florida while federal law prohibits it.

In 2012, opponents to the "Health Freedom Act" raised a similar point, noting the the Florida law would have set up a conflict with the federal health care reform law athat at the time was being challenged by Florida and other states. Bondi supported that amendment, despite the conflict, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed that it could be placed on the ballot. 

While it's too soon to know if the amendment will make it to the ballot, the state’s Financial Impact Estimating Conference has held two workshops on the financial impact of the petition. State law requires that state economists determine the revenue impact of every amendment on the ballot.

There will be a workshop on Thursday, with a final conference planned for Nov. 4.

Chief state economist Amy Baker said the number of Floridians who are likely to use medical marijuana program could range between 175,000 to 450,000 when considering figures in other states where medical marijuana is legal.

Pollara, the United for Care spokesman, said that “in the 20 states plus D.C. where medical marijuana is legal, society has not broken down. It has not caused crime to go up. It hasn’t led to an epidemic of addiction. It has, however, helped people with cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, neurological diseases and injuries, epilepsy, MS and numerous other conditions.”

-- Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.