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Panel: Economic impact of marijuana "cannot be determined"

Legalizing medical marijuana could cost the state in excess of $1.1 million to operate each year, but any other financial or tax impact of offering the drug to the seriously ill is still unclear, according to a state economic panel.

The Office of Economic and Demographic Research’s Financial Impact Estimating Conference finished its analysis of the medical marijuana ballot initiative on Monday and concluded that “increased costs from this amendment to state and local governments cannot be determined.”

Aside from the Department of Health, which estimated that it would cost an estimated $1.1 million yearly to regulate the medical marijuana industry, most agencies said the cost would not be significant or did not yet have any hard numbers.

The report stated the health department’s costs “will likely be offset through fees charged to the medical marijuana industry and users."

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriff's Association stated there will be increased costs based on the experience of other states, but did not offer any numbers.

The report estimates that about 417,000 to 452,000 will use medical marijuana based on figures from other states. It was also estimated that about 17,178 to 41,271 snowbirds may apply for ID cards to use medical marijuana.

The campaign to put a medical marijuana amendment on the ballot was launched by United for Care, spearheaded by high-profile, Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, whose law firm employs Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

The ballot initiative has been opposed by Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has filed a challenge to the wording of the amendment with the Florida Supreme Court. Bondi wrote the court has “long rejected proposals that hide the ball.”

The court must review the constitutionality of all amendments, and is expected to hear oral arguments Dec. 5.

Florida law requires that state economists determine the revenue impact of every amendment on the ballot. The FIEC was charged with producing a 75-word statement to appear on the ballot, a 500-word analysis and a longer report, all to be submitted to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ben Pollara, United for Care’s campaign manager, said the group “didn’t think in terms of economics” when creating the amendment. “We’re looking at the need for this care in the state of Florida.”

Whether medical marijuana can be taxed was one of the key issues for the FIEC, chaired by Florida’s chief state economist Amy Baker.

The economic panel determined that the sale of medical marijuana would have an agricultural-related tax exemption in Florida if the grower sold the weed directly to the user, but if there’s a third party distributing it, then it could be taxed.

Another unknown is whether medical marijuana would be considered a common household remedy -- a topic that agency representatives were reluctant to address. It might be considerd a remedy, Baker said, but even if it’s legal, medical marijuana won’t be commonly available. Patients will need an ID card and it will have to be dispensed at specified locations.

A lot of specifics would likely depend on regulations developed by the legislature. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he has filed legislation to legalize medical marijuana for three years and "none of those bills ever received a committee hearing."

Organizers said United for Care has collected more than 200,000 petitions (121,592 have been validated) -- the group will need 683,149 by Feb. 1 for the amendment to be eligible for consideration in the 2014 general election ballot.

Even though 20 states and Washington, D.C. have some form of medical marijuana law, “none of their language has been exactly like the language we have in front of us,” Baker said. “We haven’t been able to say ‘Oh, this is an exact mirror we can apply “ to Florida’s situation “because they've had something that’s different. Florida’s sales tax structure is unique to the state of Florida.”

Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and D.C. have sales taxes on medical marijuana, the report states.