A Medical Marijuana Face-Off In Florida

Bob and Cathy Jordan of Parrish. Cathy has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She says marijuana relieves muscle spasms and boosts her appetite.Bob and Cathy Jordan of Parrish. Cathy has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She says marijuana relieves muscle spasms and boosts her appetite.Floridians could vote for the first time next year to allow marijuana for medical use. A petition drive, started last week by an Orlando woman whose father has Parkinson’s disease, would make the drug legal for any condition as prescribed by a doctor.

Marijuana is the only drug Cathy Jordan says helps her fight Lou Gehrig’s disease. The 59-year-old mother smokes two joints every night to relieve depression and muscle spasms, and to boost her appetite.

“It’s keeping me alive,” said Jordan in an interview at her home in Parrish. “Anti-depressants made me a zombie and other drugs had bad side effects. The crime is that people like me can’t get it legally.”

Floridians could vote for the first time next year to allow marijuana for medical use. A petition drive, started last week by an Orlando woman whose father has Parkinson’s disease, would make the drug legal for any condition as prescribed by a doctor.

The last time such an organized effort to legalize marijuana occurred in Florida was 1997, just one year after California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. But in Florida the petitioners fell hundreds of thousands of signatures short of getting to a state referendum.

This time the movement faces some of the same roadblocks, such as opposition from law enforcement and a lack of support by the majority of the medical community.

But the climate has become more favorable in ways that could shift the balance.

A dozen other states have approved medical marijuana since Florida last tried to get it on the ballot, and four state legislatures are currently considering proposals.

Federal law, while it has prohibited marijuana since 1937, is also shifting: Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would stop raiding marijuana distributors in states where it is legal.

And Florida’s proponents, People United For Medical Marijuana, hope they can make the argument that legalizing the drug could create tax revenue and jobs to lift the state economy. Kim Russell, the founder, suggested $200 million a year could be gained in tax revenue.

In every state where medical marijuana has been on the ballot it has been successful, with the exception of South Dakota, where it barely lost with 48 percent of the vote. The challenge in Florida will be slightly steeper because the state requires a 60 percent majority vote.

Getting the proposal on the ballot remains the biggest concern for proponents. The state political action group, People United for Medical Marijuana, needs to collect 676,811 signatures from registered voters in 10 months.

Jordan and her husband, Bob, collected signatures back in 1997 on Manatee Avenue and said it was “nearly impossible” to get even 25 a day, and that many people were scared to sign their names to a document linking them to marijuana.

Instead of relying on sick people or patient advocates to get the word out, Russell is focusing on college students and social networking Web sites such as Facebook — a tactic that could either help mobilize a statewide army or provide an easy target for opponents.

One of the main arguments against legalizing medical marijuana is that the effort is a veiled move to improve access to the drug for anyone who wants it. Bill Janes, director of Florida’s Office of Drug Control, and the Florida Sheriff’s Association have already come out against it.

“When we increase the availability of marijuana we increase the availability for young people,” Janes said. “What this petition doesn’t address is how the marijuana will be controlled. Will we just allow random growing of marijuana?”

More than 4,800 people, many of them college students, have joined the Facebook page in support of the petition, which the Florida Division of Elections recently approved, and Russell said hundreds of students at campuses around the state have agreed to pass petitions. The campaign manager is Joshua Giesegh, a 20-year-old who said he is taking the year off from University of Central Florida to focus on marijuana advocacy. He is also a proponent of legalizing the drug for recreational use.

“I used to be one of those people who believed all the lies about marijuana that you learn in D.A.R.E,” an antidrug program offered in schools, Giesegh said in a phone interview. “Then I watched my grandpa die of cancer. He wouldn’t eat anything. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like that.”

People United For Medical Marijuana is not affiliated with national or professional fundraising organizations, and Russell said raising money will be the biggest challenge. She estimates they need up to $5 million for advertising and administrative costs, declining to say how much has been raised so far.

In the drive for signatures, state government leaders could potentially pose a threat, as they have generally grown less tolerant of marijuana. Last year the Legislature voted to strengthen laws against illegal growers. Janes said the tax revenue estimates by the petitioners were overblown and assumed use of the drug would become widespread.

Florida’s petition leaves it to the Legislature to decide how to regulate distribution and sale of the drug. While California’s bare-bones law has led to what some critics say is overprescription of marijuana, more current laws, such as the one that recently passed in Michigan, have guidelines meant to ensure only the truly ill will be able to get it.

In California, marijuana is sold in private shops called dispensaries. In other states patients with prescriptions for marijuana are required to carry ID cards, and it is only allowed to be grown by the patient or a designated caregiver.

Medically speaking, studies have shown benefits from marijuana, particularly for glaucoma and tremors. It has also been shown to increase appetite and alleviate the nausea caused by cancer treatments.

But the major medical associations have stopped short of endorsing it. The American Medical Association in November reconfirmed its decade-old policy that more research was needed. But it did assign a task force to take a closer look.

Dr. Jameel Audeh, a Sarasota oncologist, said back in 1985 when he was in training, marijuana was one of the best ways to relieve nausea in cancer patients. But now there are legal drugs he said work as well, including a legalized pill containing a synthetic version of the ingredient found in marijuana, THC. The potential health problems caused by marijuana, such as lung damage, outweigh the need for it, Audeh said.

“For cancer patients, this would only be needed for a very narrow group, if anyone, and I’m not sure that justifies making it legal because of all the other problems it would cause,” Audeh said.

A terminally ill cancer patient in Sarasota, who asked not to be identified because he does not want to be targeted by police, believes marijuana has kept him alive two years longer than doctors expected. He does not grow it himself because of the risk of getting caught.

Instead he relies on gifts from friends or dealers who charge up to $100 a week. Mainly the drug helps with his mood and appetite, he said. The cancer started in his esophagus and spread to his lungs, stomach and liver. When smoking marijuana became painful because it made him cough, a friend made a vaporizer from a heat gun and a plastic bag.

“Cancer is a fight against appetite and keeping weight on,” he said in an interview at his home. “If you can keep the weight on you can stay alive longer.”

To anyone who thinks it should be illegal, he urges compassion. He is 61 and has two children. At just over 5-foot-10, he weighs only 145 pounds.

“It gives me a quality of life I wouldn’t have without it.”

– Article from the Herald Tribune.