Pubdate: Sat, 22 Jun 2013
Source: Tampa Bay Times (FL)
Copyright: 2013 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Stephen Nohlgren


PARRISH -- Sitting at the kitchen table in her wheelchair, arms
useless at her sides, Cathy Jordan begins another day with amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease.

She turns expectantly to her husband, Robert, who fires up a pungent
joint and holds it to her lips. Smoke curls through her blond hair as
she inhales, holds and exhales.

Jordan is well into her third decade with a disease that often kills
within five years. She credits marijuana with slowing progression of
the condition that destroys nerve cells, ultimately leading to total
paralysis and death.

"This is keeping me alive,'' she says. It also eases her symptoms such
as muscle stiffening, drooling and chronic lung congestion. How does
she know it's working? Whenever she is hospitalized and can't have
pot, the symptoms come back.

Jordan, 63, is a medical anomaly for how long she has survived with

She is also a criminal, breaking the law with every

And she is a symbol of a fight unfolding this summer that could
redefine Florida not only medically, but politically and culturally,
too. Legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, might seem an
extraordinary step in this state. But polls show support for the
measure crosses political party lines. And as baby boomers who may
have used pot in their youth feel the impact of age, they may add to
the push for legalization.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana use for
medical purposes. But for the most part they are in liberal Western
and Northeastern areas or in Rocky Mountain states with libertarian
bents. None is in the South.

Florida is a national bellwether, says John Morgan, the Orlando
attorney familiar to millions from his "For the People'' TV ads. He
has stepped onto a new platform: the push to legalize medicinal marijuana.

"This is where the true melting pot is,'' says Morgan. "In Florida you
have your raging liberals and retired generals, your academics and
conservative Christians, your African-Americans and Cubans.''

He is behind a well-financed petition drive, expected to kick off this
month, that needs nearly 700,000 Floridians to sign in favor of a
plant more associated with stoners than healers. If enough signatures
are gathered, the question will appear on ballots next year.

People with vicious diseases will hit the airwaves to describe how
marijuana eases their symptoms. Opponents will contend that medical
marijuana is primarily an excuse for people wanting to get high.

The rhetoric already is running high.

"If medical marijuana passes, it will be just like pill mills,'' says
Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America, a national
foundation based in St. Petersburg. She acknowledges the physical
dangers of marijuana do not match the lethal potential of opioid
painkiller abuse. But she says legalizing medical marijuana could
spawn a seedy black market for unscrupulous physicians.

"These very same doctors will spring up overnight to write
recommendations, and they can't lose their license or be arrested. And
we will see a flood of people coming down from Kentucky or Georgia."

The implications of this fight go well beyond pot itself. Some
political consultants think the marijuana debate could help Florida
Democrats tap into the same youth vote that helped President Obama
carry the state in 2012.

The petition campaign would put a constitutional amendment on the
November 2014 ballot, when voters will also pick a governor, members
of Congress and state legislators.

Medical marijuana will energize young, Democratic-leaning voters who
might otherwise stay home, says Miami consultant David Custin.
Conservatives may oppose medical marijuana, he says, but those voters
tend to turn out anyway.

"The college campuses will go berserk. This will be a watershed for
young voter turnout in Florida,'' says Custin, who has no party
affiliation. "Whichever Democrat is on a statewide ballot will get a 3
to 5 point bump.''

The poll

In Florida, constitutional amendments need at least 60 percent of the
vote to pass, a tough bar. But polling suggests that medical marijuana
has a chance.

Earlier this year, Hamilton Campaigns, a Democrat-leaning pollster,
sampled 600 voters and found that 61 percent supported medical
marijuana. Only 37 percent opposed. Support rose to 70 percent when
ballot language listed specific qualifying diseases like cancer.

The poll was financed by Ben Pollara, a Miami Beach consultant who
last year ran a super PAC to support Sen. Bill Nelson's re-election.
When money was left over, Pollara paid for the marijuana poll.

Pollara, 28, says previous efforts to interest people in a medical
marijuana amendment never gained traction. The poll numbers persuaded
him to charge ahead anyway.

"It's the right thing to do, and I hope the state of Florida is ready
for it,'' Pollara says. "I also thought it would be a fun project to
do in this election cycle.''

The lawyer

In March, Pollara picked up a key ally in Morgan, a mass advertising
guru who says he will pour $1 million into the campaign if necessary.
Last year, Morgan and his wife, Ultima, donated $2 million to an
Orlando food bank. "This year we are doing marijuana,'' he says.

Morgan, 57, who enjoys Jack Daniels, says his lips have never touched
pot. He avoided it during his youth, he says, for fear of
disappointing his father.

His brother, a quadriplegic who oversees Morgan's call center, has
long used pot to control leg spasms, Morgan says. Their father, also a
Floridian, turned to marijuana 20 years ago while dying of esophageal
cancer. It eased his pain, stimulated appetite and "basically gave him
real peace,'' Morgan says.

Critics have noted that the ballot initiative might benefit one of
Morgan's friends and attorneys, Charlie Crist, if Crist runs for
governor. Morgan denies that he's doing this to get Crist into the
governor's mansion.

"When I decided to do this,'' Morgan says, "I had a feeling Charlie
was going to be offered a Cabinet position'' with Obama.

For their campaign vehicle, Pollara and Morgan took over People United
for Medical Marijuana, a grass roots group out of Orlando that had
instituted a ballot initiative three years ago. People United had a
mailing list and faithful volunteers but had raised only about $30,000
and collected only 31,000 petition signatures -- way short of the
683,149 they need by Feb. 1 to force a referendum.

Pollara and Morgan quickly ponied up almost $200,000, retained a
Nevada firm that specializes in signature gathering and rebranded the
campaign "United for Care."

Says Morgan: "The old acronym, PUFMM, sounded like a poster for a Cheech 
and Chong movie."

The opposition

Organized opposition to the ballot initiative will likely center in
St. Petersburg with the Drug Free American Foundation and Save Our
Society From Drugs, not-for-profit corporations founded by wealthy
Republican and antidrug advocate Betty Sembler. With her husband,
retail developer, one-time GOP finance chairman and former ambassador
Mel Sembler, she has championed drug treatment efforts for decades,
co-founding the now defunct Straight center in Pinellas Park after
discovering one of their sons was smoking pot.

Save Our Society will challenge the ballot initiative in court --
probably over single subject requirements -- says executive director

"Snake venom and oil were once considered medication before the FDA
system took effect,'' Fay says. "Look what happened to laetrile,'' she
says, referring to a substance in apricot pits promoted to fight
cancer. "People circumvented the system and they died.''

Advising the Sembler faction is St. Petersburg resident Carlton
Turner, U.S. drug czar under President Reagan. Polls favor medical
marijuana, he says, because people simply don't know the facts.

Medical marijuana in other states is mainly a sham, Turner says.
Registration data show that few patients actually suffer from cancer,
MS and other terminal diseases. A large majority are men, aged 20 to
40, who report vague pain symptoms.

"They just want to get high,'' Turner says, and a flood of legal pot
into the market makes it hard for law enforcement to crack down on
people growing and smoking illegally.

Pollara acknowledges that a few states that first passed medical
marijuana in the 1990s "are a bit of a mess.''

In California, storefront doctors authorize pot use on the spot. "You
can walk down Venice Beach and see signs saying medical marijuana for
$30,'' Pollara says. "That's precisely what we want to avoid here.''

A better model comes from states that adopted medical marijuana more
recently, he says. Some limit distribution to regulated

"People don't want de facto legalization,'' Pollara says. "We want to
get it as tight a regulated system as possible.''

An alternative

Marijuana comes in numerous varieties. Some are higher in THC, an
ingredient that eases pain, stimulates appetite and makes users high.
Plants higher in CBD ease anxiety and muscle spasticity without
altering the mind.

Medical marijuana cultivators can mix plants that are low in THC with
plants high in CBD. That's what Cathy Jordan's husband was growing
before Manatee authorities seized their plants this year.

Dr. Kevin Sabet, director of the University of Florida's Drug Policy
Institute, says cannabis-based prescription drugs make more sense than

Marijuana is not medicine in the usual sense, he says. The FDA cannot
approve an herb that has no consistent content or handling safeguards.
Doctors authorize marijuana's use in medical marijuana states, but
they cannot prescribe it, because there is no set dosage. Two puffs of
high-grade pot might equal an entire fat joint of cheap Mexican weed.

Sabet notes that a British drug company produces a marijuana extract
called Sativex, with specific amounts of CBD and THC, that is legal in
22 countries for treatment of MS and is under consideration for FDA

"There is no doubt that marijuana has some medical properties.'' Sabet
says. "The question is, do we need to smoke it? We don't smoke opium
to get the effects of morphine. We don't chew willow bark to get the
effects of aspirin.''

Many proponents of medical marijuana say that even if affordable
pharmaceuticals were developed, they might not address the variety of
needs that different marijuana cultivars can meet.

Robert Jordan worries that drug companies would overcharge for
patented cannabis extracts. "But if they produce something that is not
too expensive and can do the same job my stuff does, I'm all for it,''
he says.

Following a tip, deputies raided the Jordans' property earlier this
year and seized his plants, but the state attorney for Manatee County
determined that the harvest was solely for Cathy's use and declined to

Now Jordan is growing a few new plants that are months from harvest.
The Jordans buy Cathy's supply on the street, keeping their fingers
crossed they don't get a contaminated batch.

Last month, the Jordans filed a court action, asking a judge to forbid
further raids.

"I know it's illegal,'' Robert Jordan says, "But you are growing
something that is keeping your wife alive. Come on.''

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For more information

United for Care, which will circulate petitions in favor of medical

Florida Cannabis Action Network, which lobbies for loosening of
anti-marijuana laws:

Drug Free America Foundation, a national clearinghouse against drug

Save Our Society from Drugs, which lobbies on drug issues:

What's next

Medical marijuana in Florida

United for Care, the political committee petitioning for medical
marijuana, must collect 683,149 voter signatures by Feb. 1 to get a
constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot. Here are key
parts of the process:

Submit ballot language and collect signatures. The committee submits a
proposed petition to the Florida Division of Elections. After the
format is approved, signature collection can begin, probably this month.

Signature verification: Signed petitions are submitted to county
elections supervisors, who have 30 days to verify that signers are
registered voters.

Court review: When one-tenth of the required signatures are verified,
the petition is reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court to make sure
ballot language is legal. The court must rule by April 1.

Effective date: If the measure passes, it would take effect Jan. 5,
2015, unless the ballot language specifies a later date.
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MAP posted-by: Matt