TALLAHASSEE - A proposed constitutional amendment to allow the medical use of marijuana will go before Florida voters in November after the state Supreme Court narrowly approved the ballot language Monday.
The 4-3 decision is a victory for personal injury lawyer John Morgan, who spent $4 million on a medical marijuana petition drive, and a defeat for Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, who fought to keep the question off the ballot.
The decision comes three days after Morgan secured enough voter signatures to make the ballot. He made a massive push in December and January to beat the Feb. 1 deadline instead of waiting for the Supreme Court decision - a gamble that has now paid off.
"In our businesses, our cases are against the tobacco industries, pharmaceutical industries, big car companies, so we're used to gambles, but we take calculated gambles," Morgan said. "We like to win and we don't just go down a rat hole unless we think we can win."
Bondi didn't immediately return messages left on her cellphone after the decision was announced. Gov. Rick Scott, who is the former CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz - all Republicans - backed Bondi's effort to keep the question of the ballot.
"I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative," Scott said in a statement released by his office. "But having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it. No matter my personal beliefs, however, a ballot initiative would be up to the voters to decide."
Weatherford's office didn't immediately return requests for comment, while Gaetz' office said he had no comment.
"The people of Florida don't like when their vote is tried to be suppressed," Morgan said. "Unfortunately there's some politicians in the state who did not want the people to have the say and they forgot that the power is in the people and democracy is based in the people."
Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and Colorado and Washington state allow recreational use.
Polls have shown strong support for the measure in Florida. It must receive 60 percent approval from voters, and Morgan said his attention now turns to the campaign to get the measure passed.
"Now the people of Florida get to do what the Florida Legislature refused to do, which is to hear evidence, to see testimony, to hear real life stories, to read scientific journals, to talk to real people and then vote on it," Morgan said.
He plans a voter registration drive and advertising campaign leading up to the election, as well as an effort to help supporters get to polls.
The Democrats hoping to challenge Scott - former state Sen. Nan Rich and former Gov. Charlie Crist - support medical marijuana.
"This is an issue of compassion, trusting doctors, and trusting the people of Florida," said Crist, who was a Republican when he served as governor from 2007 to 2011. "I will vote for it."
Bondi challenged the ballot summary, saying the language was misleading and a more widespread use of marijuana would be allowed than what voters would be led to believe.
Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James Perry said the ballot language was clear.
"The proposed amendment has a logical and natural oneness of purpose - namely, whether Floridians want a provision in the state constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana, as determined by a licensed Florida physician," they wrote. "The ballot title and summary fairly inform voters of the chief purpose of the amendment and will not mislead voters, who will be able to cast an intelligent and informed ballot."
Justices Ricky Polston, Charles Canady and Jorge Labarga dissented.
"Placing this initiative's title and summary on the ballot will result in Floridians voting on a constitutional amendment in disguise," Polston wrote. He took issue with the ballot summary saying medical marijuana would be allowed for patients with debilitating diseases, but the amendment also allows the use for patients with debilitating conditions, which might not be a disease.
Meanwhile, the Highlands County Supervisor of Elections so far has received 1,274 signatures in support of making it a ballot measure, of which 998 were considered valid.
"It is important to recognize that these state marijuana laws do not change the fact that using marijuana continues to be an offense under federal law. Nor do these state laws change the criteria or process for FDA approval of safe and effective medications," the White House Office of National Drug Control policy states.
States with medical marijuana laws often have some form of patient registry, which may provide some protection against state arrest for possession up to a certain amount of marijuana for personal medical use. Medical marijuana growers or dispensaries are authorized in some of these states and may be limited to a certain number of plants or products per medical user. Regulation of marijuana for purported medical use may also exist at the county and city level, in addition to state laws, the feds add.
Highlands Today contributed to the report