In a legal battle whose social and political shadings have drawn an all-star cast of combatants, the Florida Supreme Court this week will consider a measure asking voters to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of illnesses.
Much of Florida’s Republican leadership is being joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state’s medical association and law enforcement organizations in fighting the proposed 2014 ballot measure.
On the opposite side, leading Democratic donor John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer close to former Gov. Charlie Crist, is bankrolling the campaign. Crist, previously a Republican while governor, is now running for the office as a Democrat.
A former Democratic House Speaker, Jon Mills of Gainesville, will make the campaign’s case before justices on Thursday.
While the politics of the fight are viewed as closely entwined in next year’s governor’s race, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his opposition stems only from concerns about how the ballot proposal is constructed.
“It’s misleading to voters, flawed and doesn’t really tell you just how pervasive marijuana would be in this state,” Weatherford told The Palm Beach Post. “If this were approved, it would be a nightmare for the Legislature to implement.”
Mills, however, said opponents, in arguments spanning more than 100 pages of filings in the case, have taken the misguided approach of attacking the concept of legalizing medical marijuana.
“They’re certainly free to argue that it’s a terrible idea,” Mills said. “But that’s not the test that justices will put to the amendment.”
Instead, justices are expected to confine their focus to determining whether the proposed language of the citizens’ initiative meets constitutional standards.
If justices rule that the proposal involves more than one subject, confuses voters or makes them think they’re endorsing something they’re not, it could be barred from the ballot.
Over the years, many petition measures have been tripped up because of problems with a ballot title and summary.
For medical marijuana opponents, the Supreme Court review is potentially make-or-break, since it looks virtually guaranteed of winning voter approval if organizers collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.
Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the use of marijuana for treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and epilepsy.
Eleven of the states have enacted such laws through ballot measures, similar to that promoted in Florida by the organization United for Care. The campaign has collected 131,655 valid signatures but must get to 683,149 by Feb. 1 to reach the November ballot.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed 82 percent of Floridians support allowing adults to legally use marijuana if prescribed by a doctor. Support is strong among both parties, with 70 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats backing the idea.
But the measure is seen as potentially driving younger voters and independents to the polls – possibly upsetting the Florida Republican Party’s campaign calculus for re-electing Gov. Rick Scott, analysts have said.
Morgan, whose law firm Crist works for, has poured in $640,000 of the $875,233 raised by United for Care’s political committee, People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFMM).
Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, earlier issued an advisory opinion that concluded the proposal misleads voters, warning that if approved, it “would allow marijuana in limitless situations.”
Opponents like Weatherford and others have since picked up on that theme.
“It is guilty of logrolling in at least five other respects,” attorneys for the coalition of business, medical and law enforcement associations told justices in briefs filed with the court. “Each of which requires voters to accept something they may not want, in order to gain what they do want.”
Opponents argue that while decriminalizing marijuana for the treatment of patients, the measure unconstitutionally attempts also to set up a system for commercial production and distribution and broadens criminal immunity, among other changes.
Although marijuana remains a controlled substance and illegal under federal law, the U.S. Justice Department has said it is not looking to prosecute medical-marijuana cases in states where it’s been legalized.
Weatherford joined Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in filing a brief urging justices to prohibit the measure from going before voters, echoing Bondi’s legal view that it deceives voters.
“This court is left with a misleading and incomplete ballot statement that, if approved, would deny voters the opportunity to cast an intelligent and informed vote on the proposed amendment,” they concluded.
But Mills, dean emeritus of the University of Florida law school, said in his filings with the court that the proposal is easy for voters to understand.
While opponents say the proposal’s “log-rolling” violates the critical single-subject requirement for ballot measures, Mills dismissed that argument. He said it is about allowing marijuana to be prescribed to treat certain medical conditions and all other aspects related to that.
“This proposal presents a clear choice to voters,” Mills wrote in his summary.