By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - Organizers of a Florida campaign for medical use of marijuana say they expect to submit enough voter signatures this week to get the issue on ballots in time for the November election, adding further momentum to a national campaign to reform laws banning the drug.
The campaign hopes to obtain as many as 1.1 million signatures before a February 1 deadline, said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of People United for Medical Marijuana.
State law provides that campaign organizers have to get 683,149 voter signatures validated by the counties, and almost one in three are rejected to failing to meet requirements, such as residency and age.
The petition drive is being bankrolled by wealthy Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan who has committed $3 million to the campaign, enabling organizers to hire professional canvassers to collect signatures.
If the petition is approved by 60 per cent of voters in November, Florida would become the first southern U.S. state to approve marijuana for medical use, joining some 20 other states, mostly in the west and the northeast.
Polls show the petition has a good chance of success. Attitudes toward marijuana use have shifted sharply in the United States. Colorado this month became the first state to regulate and sell marijuana for recreational use, with Washington set to follow suit later this year.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected on Wednesday to announce plans to allow limited use of medical marijuana for seriously ill patients.
Florida state officials are fighting the ballot initiative, challenging it before the state Supreme Court. The justices heard arguments December 5 on whether the ballot language complies with legal requirements.
Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and the state's Republican political leadership contend that the ballot language improperly implies that the state can trump federal restrictions on marijuana. They also have argued that allowing marijuana use for medical "conditions" might allow doctors to prescribe it for anxiety, stress or other non-critical ailments.
The language of the amendment permits prescriptions for "debilitating conditions" in the judgment of a licensed physician, for sufferers of ailments such as HIV /AIDS, cancer, war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and children with an extreme form of epilepsy.
The state's Republican-dominated legislature has declined for several years to consider medical marijuana legislation. However, a sentencing-reform package set for a workshop Thursday in a House criminal-justice subcommittee includes a plan to allow strictly prescribed use of a specialized strain of marijuana, known as "Charlotte's Web" that is high in cannabidiol, which has shown effectiveness in controlling seizures, while low in the THC ingredient that gets pot users high.
Sponsors of the reform bill have invited parents, Colorado growers and other professionals to discuss Charlotte's Web at the subcommittee meeting. The strain is named for Charlotte Figi, a Colorado girl whose parents got growers to let them extract oils from the cannabidiol strain for her seizures.
Florida's petition drive seems likely to become a major issue in the November gubernatorial election. Morgan is a major backer and law partner of former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who became a Democrat and is running against the state's Republican Governor, Rick Scott.
If Florida's marijuana petition succeeds, advocates say it would provide a major boost to national efforts to make marijuana laws less restrictive.
"It will be a breakthrough in the south, a breakthrough in one of the most populous states in the country and a breakthrough in a bellweather state in American politics," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the New York-based Drug Alliance Project, which promotes marijuana legalization and is backed by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.
(Additional reporting and writing by David Adams; Editing by David Gregorio)