Pubdate: Thu, 30 Oct 2014
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2014 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Author: Michael Pollick


For many politicians in Florida, the medical marijuana issue has 
become election kryptonite.

While Florida's two leading gubernatorial candidates have had little 
trouble discussing their vision for the Sunshine State, neither 
Charlie Crist nor Gov. Rick Scott has gushed over Amendment 2 - an 
issue that could have widespread ramifications for the state and 
influence a national debate on medical marijuana.

Their silence on the drug and the constitutional amendment up for a 
vote on Nov. 4 stands out as one of the few commonalities between 
Scott, the incumbent Republican, and Democratic challenger Crist.

But they aren't alone.

Statewide, politicians of every stripe and office have been largely 
silent on the issue that voters will decide on Tuesday.

If approved by 60 percent of the voters, the amendment could catapult 
Florida into being the second-largest medical marijuana-consuming 
state in the nation - after California - within a few years.

Medical marijuana could become an industry generating $800 million 
annually in taxable revenue, experts say. Proponents contend that the 
drug could replace or reduce prescription medication use for roughly 
400,000 residents suffering from a wide variety of ailments.

But opponents say the proposal is just a thinly veiled attempt to 
push the state toward full legalization, a move they say would have 
dire consequences for the state's population.

If passed, Florida would become the 24th state to legalize marijuana 
for medical use. Others states that have approved similar measures 
include Illinois, Michigan and New York, states that are the source 
of many winter visitors to the Sunshine State.

Perhaps not surprisingly, support for medical marijuana has 
traditionally broken down among party lines - until recently.

Democrats, typically identified as a group that pushes for marijuana 
reform, have been less shy about speaking out statewide.

"The Democrats own this issue, in terms of expansion and legalization 
of medical marijuana," University of Florida political scientist 
Daniel Smith said.

But Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, is especially close to the 
issue: After vying unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate - a race he 
lost during the primary - Crist became a law partner at Morgan & Morgan.

Two years after Crist joined the Orlando firm, founder John Morgan 
became the leading voice to get the medical marijuana amendment on 
the ballot in Florida, spending $5 million.

Still, Crist has had to be restrained in his support for the 
amendment for political reasons, Smith and some other analysts believe.

"The interesting thing is that Charlie Crist should be playing it up, 
but he cannot, because of his relationship with John Morgan, because 
then it looks self-serving," Smith said.

Republicans, too, have a complex relationship with medical marijuana.

Beginning with President Richard Nixon, Republicans created the "War 
on Drugs" campaign that resonates to this day in America.

Marijuana, in particular, was singled out by the federal government 
as dangerous and lacking in redeeming values.

It was Nixon, too, who in 1971 classified marijuana as a so-called 
"Schedule One" drug, alongside heroin. Federal officials maintained 
that marijuana was a "gateway drug" that would lead users to even 
stronger drugs with higher risks of addiction.

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who served as president from 1981 to 
1989, continued the charge with a much-heralded "Just Say No" 
campaign led by first lady Nancy Reagan.

"Particularly among socially conservative Republicans, marijuana has 
been viewed as an illegal drug," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of 
Central Florida political science professor.

But in the years since Reagan left the White House, public perception 
on marijuana has changed dramatically.

This spring, the Pew Research Center determined that 54 percent of 
Americans now believe marijuana should be legalized. In 1969, by 
contrast, when the Gallup poll takers first asked the same question, 
just 12 percent favored legalization.

Support appears to be gaining. In the past four years alone, support 
for legalization has risen 13 percentage points, Pew notes.

That could be bad news for staunch Republican candidates, who face a 
quandary over medical marijuana because many of their constituents - 
especially aging, white baby boomers beginning to deal with chronic 
illness and disease - seem to support it.

The GOP, meanwhile, seems to want medical marijuana to remain off the 
proverbial radar.

"You hope maybe this is not going to be the big issue in the campaign 
after all," Jewett said of the Republican mindset. "You don't want it 
to be about medical marijuana if you think it is going to increase 
turnout among your opponents' supporters."

After early polls suggested medical marijuana would be approved 
overwhelmingly, more recent data suggests the vote on the amendment 
could go either way.

Political analysts note 60 percent is a high threshold for approval, 
and opponents have become more mobilized as the election nears.

Early summer polls, for instance, concluded nine out of 10 Floridians 
supported medical marijuana.

But by mid-October, according to a Tampa Bay Times survey, support 
for Amendment 2 had shrunk to 48 percent - its lowest level in the 
past two years.

Yet another poll, however, from the University of North Florida, 
stated the measure still enjoyed 67 percent support.

That volatility could be the reason neither Scott nor Crist has been 
eager to raise the issue.

During the pair's hour-long debate broadcast by CNN on Tuesday night, 
both Scott and Crist slid right through a marijuana question.

Both said they are sympathetic to people whose medical conditions 
might benefit from cannabis.

Scott plugged a non-euphoric marijuana bill he signed into law in the 
spring. But his endorsement stopped there.

"The right thing to do is continue to go back through the legislative 
process to find treatments that work," the governor said.

Crist said he supported the medical marijuana amendment and 
acknowledged that Morgan, his law partner, "has worked very hard to 
get it on the ballot and I commend him for that."

But that's about as far as he ventured on the subject, choosing 
instead to raise a personal issue that could be vaguely connected to 
medical marijuana.

"I happen to have a sister that a little over a year ago was 
diagnosed with brain cancer," Crist said. "Thank God she's doing 
well. Hello, Margaret. God bless you."

The candidates' tepid interest extends to many other legislators, as well.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, one of the region's senior legislators 
and a politician facing no known challengers at present, has been 
especially taciturn.

She declined a chance to outline her stance on the issue with the 

"The silence is deafening from some," Smith said.

That silence stems from many politicians' reasoning that they do not 
want to seem unsympathetic and alienate voters who either are 
suffering from illness or know someone who is by opposing something 
that could help.

But while politicians have been largely silent, voters and 
constituents have tended not to be.

"It comes up just about everywhere I go," said Greg Steube, 
R-Sarasota, who will soon start his third term in the state's House 
of Representatives, and like Detert, is unopposed.

He thinks Amendment 2 would spell disaster if it becomes law and 
prompt a series of lawsuits. But if the measure does pass, Steube 
said he will support the Florida Department of Health in making rules 
regarding medical marijuana.

"From my understanding, the initiative only allows the Department of 
Health to promulgate rules, not the Legislature," Steube said. "I am 
sure there are some things we can do, like tax it."

Dovetailing with the political divide on the issue is a generational one.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, age 32, knows this well.

The Republican from Fort Walton Beach is preparing to begin his third 
term as a state representative. In 2016, he plans to run for the state Senate.

This spring, he sponsored the "Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 
2014," the first bill to tackle reform on the state level.

Crafted after medical marijuana cemented a place on the November 
ballot, it set up strict rules governing the ability of patients with 
epilepsy or severe spasms to use a non-euphoric marijuana extract.

The measure was supposed to be non-controversial. It has been 
anything but that, however. With the medical marijuana vote grows 
near, policies created by the Florida Department of Health governing 
non-euphoric marijuana extracts - commonly known as Charlotte's Web - 
have become mired in four lawsuits.

Even so, Gaetz considers the Charlotte's Web bill signed into law as a victory.

"My dad, who serves in the state Senate, is Senate president, was a 
tough sell," Gaetz said.

"A lot of the older members of the Legislature had it ingrained in 
their minds that cannabis cannot be medicine. I think that is because 
the federal government has spent a generation telling us that."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom