PARRISH -- Sitting at the kitchen table in her wheelchair, arms useless at her sides, Cathy Jordan begins another day with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
She turns expectantly to her husband, Robert, who fires up a pungent joint and holds it to her lips. Smoke curls through her blond hair as she inhales, holds and exhales.
Jordan is well into her third decade with a disease that often kills within five years. She credits marijuana with slowing progression of the condition that destroys nerve cells, ultimately leading to total paralysis and death.
“This is keeping me alive,’’ she says. It also eases her symptoms such as muscle stiffening, drooling and chronic lung congestion. How does she know it’s working? Whenever she is hospitalized and can’t have pot, the symptoms come back.
Jordan, 63, is a medical anomaly for how long she has survived with ALS.
She is also a criminal, breaking the law with every puff.
And she is a symbol of a fight unfolding this summer that could redefine Florida not only medically, but politically and culturally, too. Legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, might seem an extraordinary step in this state. But polls show support for the measure crosses political party lines. And as Baby Boomers who may have used pot in their youth feel the impact of age, they may add to the push for legalization.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow marijuana use for medical purposes. But they are centered mainly in liberal Western and Northeastern areas or in Rocky Mountain states with libertarian bents. None is in the South.
Florida is a national bellwether, says John Morgan, the Orlando attorney familiar to millions from his “For the People’’ TV ads. He has stepped onto a new platform: the push to legalize medicinal marijuana.
“This is where the true melting pot is,’’ says Morgan. “In Florida you have your raging liberals and retired generals, your academics and conservative Christians, your African-Americans and Cubans.’’
He is behind a well-financed petition drive, expected to kick off this month, that needs nearly 700,000 Floridians to sign in favor of a plant more associated with stoners than healers. If enough signatures are gathered, the question will appear on ballots next year.
People with vicious diseases will hit the airwaves to describe how marijuana eases their symptoms. Opponents will contend that medical marijuana is primarily an excuse for people wanting to get high.
The rhetoric already is running high.
“If medical marijuana passes, it will be just like pill mills,’’ says Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America, a national foundation based in St. Petersburg. She acknowledges the physical dangers of marijuana do not match the lethal potential of opioid painkiller abuse. But she says legalizing medical marijuana could spawn a seedy black market for unscrupulous physicians.
“These very same doctors will spring up overnight to write recommendations, and they can’t lose their license or be arrested. And we will see a flood of people coming down from Kentucky or Georgia.’’
The implications of this fight go well beyond pot itself. Some political consultants think the marijuana debate could help Florida Democrats tap into the same youth vote that helped President Obama carry the state in 2012.