A new federal policy toward medical marijuana has sparked discussion among Florida residents about the future of Florida’s marijuana laws.
Under federal law, the use or sale of marijuana has long been illegal. But since 1996, advocacy groups have succeeded in passing laws in 13 states that made the use of marijuana for medical purposes legal within those states.
Because federal law supersedes state law, patients who used medical marijuana in compliance with the laws of their states were often still at risk for federal prosecution.
But recently, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would be shifting its marijuana prosecution efforts, and, in a memo from Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, said that federal prosecutors “should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
This announcement signaled that the federal government will essentially be allowing individual
states to decide the legality of medical marijuana for themselves.
For legalization activists in states where medical marijuana is not legal, such as Florida, the new policy provides a powerful incentive to continue in efforts toward legalization.
“I feel emboldened,” said Jodi James, a member of the board of directors for the Florida Cannabis Action Network. “One of the obstacles that we have always heard, working at a state level, is that … whatever we do here in Florida, we were just going to be in conflict with the federal government. So it’s exciting to think about the idea that this helps us to overcome that obstacle.”
James believes that medical marijuana is essential for “healing the community,” and she points to the effects of legalization in California as an example of the positive impact that legal medical marijuana could have in Florida.
“We have seen more people moving away from alcoholism, we have seen (marijuana) dispensaries that become one of the single largest taxpayers in a community, and we have seen the use of marijuana by children decline,” she said. “So we have less spending on marijuana-related arrests, we have fewer people incarcerated for possession
of cannabis, and you have patients that might have been using a medicine that is more toxic now using less toxic medicines.”
However, there are others, like Lt. Tim Hayes of the Gainesville-
Alachua County Drug Task Force, who think that California’s experience with medical marijuana has revealed very negative effects for communities.
“I think that if we go the way California did, then it’s just an absolute disaster for the state,” he said.
Hayes believes that Californians
have taken advantage of the state’s loose regulations on medical marijuana and have simply been using the law as a convenient cover for illegal recreational use of the drug.
Hayes likened this phenomenon to “the debacle of prescription drugs” that Florida’s law enforcement is currently struggling with.
“We’re dealing with people illegally selling prescription drugs almost to a level more than cocaine,” he said. “Because of Florida’s lax laws on prescription drugs, we have people from all the surrounding states coming here and they travel around the state getting the prescription painkillers mainly to go back and sell them. I kind of look at medical marijuana in Florida like that.”
Paul Doering, a distinguished service professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida, agreed that recreational abuse of pain killers has been a big problem, and he said it’s likely that medical marijuana would be similarly abused if doctors continue to provide inappropriate prescriptions.
“There are enough crooked doctors out there to move a whole lot of morphine and oxycodone,” he said. “And in contrast, if those guys are as crooked as the day is long, there might be others who might simply be sympathetic and might, in their own college days, have enjoyed a toke here or there, who simply think our marijuana laws are wrong and will write (a prescription) at the drop of a hat.”
In addition to acknowledging the law enforcement problems that medical marijuana might create, Doering explained that the suspected therapeutic effects of marijuana might not be as great as some would hope.
Marijuana has been suggested
for the treatment of ailments such as glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and nausea from chemotherapy, but Doering said that the effectiveness of the drug has been exaggerated by supporters of medical marijuana.
“The scientific literature is just not real clear on what marijuana
is good for or can be used for,” said Doering. “If you were to look at the scientific evidence with the same scrutiny that you look at pharmaceutical drugs, marijuana is not that great.”
Doering said he does think medical marijuana could be useful in some circumstances, but he also said that he believes the push for legalization of medical marijuana is largely a front for the legalization of marijuana for all uses.
James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network said the legalization of all marijuana is, in fact, the main goal of her organization.
“All indicators are that bringing it into the light of day would be a positive experience,” she said. “We can go back to the prohibition of alcohol to see the damage that prohibition causes. It breeds criminals who are willing to stop at nothing to protect profits.”
However, the main debate in marijuana policy continues to be limited to the issue of medical marijuana within the state.
The Florida Legislature holds the ultimate deciding power in this debate, and according to Charles E. Van Zant, who is vice chairman of the Health Care Regulation Policy Committee in Florida’s House of Representatives,
the laws are unlikely to change in the near future.
“I do not believe that any bill would pass the House or the Senate that would allow (medical marijuana) to become legal in Florida,” he said. “It’s not in the forefront of issues that we’re considering in Tallahassee.”
By Allison Arteaga
November 9, 2009
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Will Florida be next to allow medical marijuana?