The fight for medical marijuana started with the gay community, and it may end in Florida this year

By : Billy Manes
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It wouldn’t be a white Christmas in Florida in 2015; it never is. But you could argue that a green Christmas came in the form of a unanimous ruling in mid-December by the Florida Supreme Court that refined language to the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment. Backed by mega-attorney John Morgan and his millions of dollars, along with political organization United for Care (formerly People United for Medical Marijuana), the bill received a solid 58 percent approval from a low-turnout midterm electorate, meaning 3.4 million Floridians voted in favor of the amendment, even in a state that is hostile to progressive causes. The state requires a 60 percent vote to pass a constitutional amendment.

“I’mmmmmmmmmmbaaaaaaaaaack,” Morgan told the Miami Herald earlier this month. He’s back, only with $4 million less in his back account.

“Last time I was just kind of a guy with a trombone marching down the street waiting for the band to follow behind me, and I turned around about two blocks down, and no one was there,” he tells Watermark. But this time, every lobbyist, every law firm throughout Florida now has a medical marijuana group.”

He admits there were some missteps in the 2014 campaign that extended beyond voter turnout. Mostly, he says, Florida’s senior population didn’t fall in lockstep as much as he hoped they would.

“I think I have to do a better job educating seniors about why this is really for them and their loved ones,” he says. “The problem with seniors is they’re so scared of drugs. They don’t know the difference between marijuana and heroin. It’s like M&Ms: there’s a red and blue and green, and they’re all M&Ms. I didn’t do a good job talking to them last time. I thought I would motivate kids to get up and rise up and vote, and they didn’t. Last time Dade and Broward didn’t vote at all.”

Morgan and United for Care faced significant political headwinds from law enforcement groups and noted Las Vegas casino entrepreneur, Sheldon Adelson, as well.

“I believe when the time comes to perhaps fight Sheldon Adeleson again,” Morgan says, “We will. He’s in Las Vegas, he’s very concerned about the morals of Florida. Go to the Venetian, go to the nightclub, go to the pool. If you want any vice, any alcohol, any drug, go to the Venetian. All of the sudden he’s going to tell us what to do here in Florida.”

However, the battle for the legalization of medical marijuana goes further than politics and the morality games for Morgan.

“Without marijuana, [my brother Tim] would just be drugged up on Percocet all the time,” he says. “For a lot of people, unfortunately, this is an end-of-life solution. These are your last days. When you’re in your last days, who the hell cares? You should have the right to use a plant that was put into nature for us by God, and works.”

The Gay Effect
Though the medical marijuana issue may present a confusing web of legislation and enforcement – actually, the “Charlotte’s Web” legislation that was intended to provide a weak strain of cannabis for children with epilepsy that was passed by the legislature in 2014 (a “deflection,” Morgan says) took more than a year to implement, and is still mired in controversy – it’s also long been a cause in the LGBT community. HIV/AIDS, at its untreatable peak, inspired many in the gay community to fight for legal, physical care, United for Care’s campaign manager Ben Pollara says.

“The medical marijuana movement really started out of the gay rights movement,” he says. “One of the first campaigns to really run on this issue in California in 1996 was started, at least in part, by a guy who lost his partner to AIDS and used marijuana in his last days to try to give him a better quality of life.”

But that fight, Pollara says, doesn’t have quite the same punch anymore, given the evolution of HIV treatments that have come to the prescription market since then.

“Fortunately for gay rights, unfortunately for marijuana reform, the LGBT community has kind of moved away from this issue, because they’ve advanced broader gay rights in a much quicker way, and also because the HIV/AIDS drugs that were available in the ‘90s that really caused things that necessitated the use of marijuana have gotten a lot better,” Pollara says. “So you can be on that HIV cocktail and not necessarily need marijuana to eat a decent meal like the folks who were on those drugs in the ‘90s did.”

Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith says her organization has yet to make a decision on backing the cause in 2016; Pollara said he “thought” that EQFL had endorsed the previous measure in 2014. Calls to the Human Rights Campaign were not returned.
Regardless, there are those in the Florida LGBT community who continue to carry the cannabis flag. South Florida attorney Norm Kent, who also publishes South Florida Gay News, supports taking legalization a step further.

“Demographic studies that we’ve done show that gay populations smoke pot. The highest votes in 2014, 72 percent, were in places like Wilton Manors and Key West, counties that are gay-centered,” he says. “So the gay community routinely supports decriminalization, legalization and medicalization of marijuana. It should be an issue that we’re writing about in our papers.”

Kent legally represented the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in Key West when the group was raided by police, he says. Additionally, he joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 1972 and later became the organization’s president. He sued the state of Florida for poisoning marijuana plants in Gainesville in Orange County, “so it’s been a lifelong mission for me to be involved in this, and it’s very rewarding to see how far we’ve come,” he says.Kent also refers to 2014’s “Charlotte’s Web” bill as a “scandal” meant to redirect conservative sympathies into something that wouldn’t be confused with marijuana as a social drug. Previous attempts at full medical marijuana legislation have been killed in the legislature with each passing session.

“We had to bypass the legislature, because they’re inept and incompetent and unwilling to proceed,” Kent says. “If they were more progressive and not comprised of just fools, they would widely pass medical marijuana legislation that would preempt the constitutional amendment. But they were incapable of doing it in 2014, and they’re going to be incapable of doing it in 2016, because they’re too stubborn in their beliefs.”

“They don’t understand that politics is the art of progressive compromise, talking with your opponents and not shouting at them,” he adds. “They don’t work for a common good, they work for a personal goal.”

A New High
The objection to Morgan’s language – though only by a two percent margin – prompted him and United for Care to redress the language for purposes of clarification. State Attorney General Pam Bondi fought hard against the 2014 amendment, but this year she has yet to file an injunction. Though the adjustments may seem minimal, they carry some significance in the face of opposing arguments that medical marijuana is a slippery slope, that the rules are full of loopholes. Even the title of the proposed amendment, “Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Conditions,” has evolved from “Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions.”

Other, perhaps more important changes come in the body of the proposal. If anything, the language becomes more far-reaching, naming more treatable illnesses, providing extensive protections to physicians prescribing cannabis included. But the terms have been honed for legal reasons, with more specific rules applied to physicians, caregivers and even patients. In essence, the holes were spackled.

“I wish John [Morgan] hadn’t even pulled back on some of the language that was in the amendment last year,” Kent says. “He made it tighter to withstand objections from opponents, but there’s nothing to object to. I think we will win, and I would’ve preferred to win with a better bill, but in politics, you learn that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and we’ll take what we can get. And if we can get a constitutional amendment that allows for people to access medical marijuana without being criminally prosecuted, I’ll support that.”

In a January 15 email, United for Care announced that it had already shipped 1.1 million petitions to the Florida Supervisor of elections, well north of the 683,149 needed to get the measure on the ballot. Validation is still pending (the email reports that over 570,000 of those had already been validated).

Not everyone is for legalization, naturally. Diane Ramseyer, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation is still up in arms.

“Instead of spending enormous amounts of money on an initiative that alters our state’s constitution and creating a law that could not easily be fixed when it backfires, I would call upon Morgan and his team to spend their money and efforts helping us to advance research and clinical trials on compounds in marijuana that could be developed into real medicine,” Ramseyer says, according to chamber-backed Sunshine State News.

Morgan’s not backing down though, even recently suggesting that he might produce another amendment to legalize completely. For now it’s for the people and their health, something Morgan takes very personally.

“If you’re facing death, anxiety is a real medical condition,” he says. “To me, it’s so ass-backwards. Everywhere I go people were thanking me and asking me are you going to try it again? About 400,000 ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer patients need this. Out of 18 million people that’s one in 36. This is as important to me as the other charities I’ve been involved in. This may benefit more people than other efforts.”

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