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Medical Pot Makes Florida a Battleground State

(CN) - It's gut check time for both supporters and opponents of legalizing marijuana in the Sunshine State. They now have less than two weeks to make their respective cases to voters who will decide whether Florida joins 23 other states and the District of Columbia in embracing pot as a legitimate medical treatment.

Indicative of just how high the stakes are, in late September, conservative opponents of the initiative rolled out a $1.6 million advertising campaign to shoot down the measure, known as Amendment 2.

Some observers have even predicted the debate over medical marijuana could go a long way toward determining who wins this year's race for governor.

If young, presumably pro-medical marijuana voters turn out en mass, that could boost the prospects for Democrat Charlie Crist, the thinking goes; if opponents of the measure are more effective in their get-out-the-vote efforts, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott will likely win.

Amendment 2 would allow "medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician," according to ballot language.

If approved, the amendment to Florida's Constitution would allow "caregivers to assist patients' medical use of marijuana" and authorize the Florida Department of Health to "register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers."

The amendment only applies to Florida law and does not try to supersede any federal laws against the drug. Under Florida law, 60 percent of voters must approve an amendment before it is placed in the constitution.

Earlier this year, advocates of medical marijuana submitted more than 710,000 signatures, qualifying the amendment to appear on the ballot. After a challenge from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state Supreme Court approved its place on the ballot.

United for Care and Orlando personal injury attorney John Morgan of Morgan & Morgan spearheaded that effort and since then, Charlie Crist, several Democratic state representatives, and several pro-marijuana organizations have endorsed the amendment.

Last year, when medical marijuana supporters began gathering signatures, a Quinnipiac University Poll found 82 percent of Floridians supported the measure. But an influx of money from those opposing the amendment has recently narrowed that gap.

In addition to Gov. Scott, several former Florida Supreme Court Justices and the Florida Sheriffs Association have all come out against the amendment.

The opponents also include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican fundraiser, who has contributed at least 2.5 million to bankroll many of the commercials run by the Vote No on 2 campaign, who argue the ballot language is unnecessarily broad.

"People are starting to realize what [the amendment] does and, more importantly, what it does not do," says Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for the No on 2 campaign.

Bascom says opponents of Amendment 2 worry people could receive medical marijuana for more benign conditions like stress and sleep apnea. If the measure was simply about compassion for those suffering from cancer and other serious diseases, she argues, "it would not have loopholes big enough to drive a truck through."

In recent weeks, the No on 2 campaign has run several commercials attacking the caregivers portion of the ballot language. The commercials contend anyone can become a caregiver and dispense medical marijuana - even drug dealers and felons.

"We are not calling caregivers drug dealers," Bascom clarifies. "But drug dealers could become caregivers."

Ben Polera, campaign manager for United We Care, dismisses these claims.

"A lot of what they call loopholes is Constitutional Amendment 101," he says.

Polera points out that the Department of Health will issue identification cards to caregivers certified to dispense medical marijuana, and that all such indivudals will be subject to background checks.

The bigger issue, he argues, is giving comfort to those afflicted by serious diseases or chronic pain.

"This issue is important for Floridians because it's an issue that could impact every single one of us," Pollera says. "Someone we love will experience a serious illness or accident in our lifetime ... People should not be made criminals for seeking something their doctor recommends."

If Amendment 2 passes, legal issues are bound to arise. Already, two Florida farms have filed petitions with the Division of Administrative Hearings objecting how the Department of Health is choosing growers of "Charlotte's Web," a low THC grade of marijuana approved by the state legislature last spring. The cases have delayed implementation of the law.

Bascom says issues relating to worker's compensation and the liability of medical marijuana producers could also crop up.

"Someone is going to sue," she says. "There could be a myriad of different lawsuits."

Pollera says for now supporters are just trying to get the amendment passed.

"I'm not going to wring my hands over [potential court cases]," he says. "We have to walk before we chew bubble gum."

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