TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's top court on Monday approved the wording of a medical marijuana ballot question asking voters to join some 20 other states in legalizing the drug for medicinal use.
The Florida Supreme Court issued a divided, 4-3 opinion clearing the way for the proposed constitutional amendment to be placed on the November 2014 general election ballot.
The decision is a win for Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who has largely financed the effort. It's also a loss for Attorney General Pam Bondi and Republican legislative leaders who argued before the court that the amendment was misleading.
The four-judge majority wrote the opinion was sufficiently clear in setting the boundaries for when doctors would be allowed to prescribe marijuana. For instance, Bondi and lawyers for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had argued the summary was misleading because it allowed doctors to prescribe the drug for "diseases" while the amendment itself discusses medical "conditions."
The amendment summary says it would authorize "the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician."
The actual ballot language defines "debilitating medical condition" as diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or "other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."
That could allow medical marijuana to be prescribed for anything, critics say.
But the four-judge majority -- Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James Perry -- rejected those arguments.
"We conclude that the use of 'diseases' instead of 'conditions' in the ballot summary will not reasonably mislead the voters," the wrote.
On the losing side, Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Jorge Labarga disagreed, arguing the ballot title and summary "are affirmatively misleading because they obscure the breadth of medical issues that would qualify for medical marijuana by deceptively employing the term 'disease' and by failing to disclose that a physician need only believe that the benefits would likely outweigh the risks."
They also argued the question was confusing for failing "to disclose the broad immunity that would be granted if the amendment passes and because they falsely imply that the use and possession of marijuana in accordance with the amendment would not violate federal law."
Bondi said Monday in a statement that the decision was now up to voters.
"I encourage every Floridian to read the full amendment in order to understand the impact it could have on Floridians," she said.
Weatherford said he disagreed with the court's majority, and "I have faith they will do their homework and understand the impact of this truly radical proposal.
"Make no mistake," he said in a statement, "this is not about compassionate medical marijuana. This is about the Coloradofication of Florida, where the end game is a pot shop on every street corner."
Gaetz declined to comment.
The amendment passed the required 683,000 signature mark last week and could now shift to a multimillion-dollar campaign phase, although polls suggest the issue is broadly popular with Florida voters.
In a fund-raising email to supporters, Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the United for Care group pushing the amendment, cautioned that "Now the work of educating voters and combating false information truly begins."
Meanwhile, groups opposed to legalizing medical pot promised to fight. "There is no medicinal value to it. It's the same pot that you get down the street from the drug dealer," said Jeff Kadel, executive director of the Palm Beach County Substance Awareness Coalition.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other critics have alleged the amendment was really a stealth effort to help Democrat Charlie Crist regain the Governor's Mansion this fall by driving more liberal-leaning, "irregular" voters to the polls. Crist, who is running against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, worked for Morgan's firm and has embraced the amendment.
"This is an issue of compassion, trusting doctors, and trusting the people of Florida. I will vote for it," Crist said.
Scott, meanwhile, said he couldn't support the amendment.
“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative," Scott said. "But, having seen the terrible affects 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.”
Morgan poured $2.8 million into the effort this fall -- spending $2 million in December on a California-based signature gathering firm PCI Consultants Inc., which has blanketed airwaves with commercials and shopping malls and other public spaces with signature-gatherers.
Morgan's total giving includes an $909,000 loan from his law firm to the People United for Medical Marijuana organization.
Morgan's family and mega-law firm accounted for 83 percent of the legalization effort's entire budget and will continue to financially back the campaign, he said.
“I think the amendment kind of passes itself. It's like 'Are you in favor of fresh air?'" Morgan said. "But with that said, at Morgan and Morgan we don’t take anything for granted. Something that seems obvious might not be so we will play it as if we’re behind. That’s how we will treat this campaign."Copyright © 2015, CT Now