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.
The petition campaign would put a constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot, when voters will also pick a governor, members of Congress and state legislators.
Medical marijuana will energize young, Democratic-leaning voters who might otherwise stay home, says Miami consultant David Custin. Conservatives may oppose medical marijuana, he says, but those voters tend to turn out anyway.
“The college campuses will go berserk. This will be a watershed for young voter turnout in Florida,’’ says Custin, who has no party affiliation. “Whichever Democrat is on a statewide ballot will get a 3 to 5 point bump.’’
In Florida, constitutional amendments must pass by at least 60 percent, a tough bar. But polling suggests that medical marijuana has a chance.
Earlier this year, Hamilton Campaigns, a Democrat-leaning pollster, sampled 600 voters and found that 61 percent supported medical marijuana. Only 37 percent opposed. Support rose to 70 percent when ballot language listed specific qualifying diseases like cancer.
The poll was financed by Ben Pollara, a Miami Beach consultant who last year ran a super PAC to support Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election. When money was left over, Pollara paid for the marijuana poll.
Pollara, 28, says previous efforts to interest people in a medical marijuana amendment never gained traction. The poll numbers persuaded him to charge ahead anyway.
“It’s the right thing to do, and I hope the State of Florida is ready for it,’’ Pollara says. “I also thought it would be a fun project to do in this election cycle.’’
In March, Pollara picked up a key ally in Morgan, a mass advertising guru who says he will pour $1 million into the campaign if necessary. Last year, Morgan and his wife, Ultima, donated $2 million to an Orlando food bank. “This year we are doing marijuana,’’ he says.
Morgan, 57, who enjoys Jack Daniels, says his lips have never touched pot. He avoided it during his youth, he says, for fear of disappointing his father.
His brother, a quadriplegic who oversees Morgan’s call center, has long used pot to control leg spasms, Morgan says. Their father, also a Floridian, turned to marijuana 20 years ago while dying of esophageal cancer. It eased his pain, stimulated appetite and “basically gave him real peace,’’ Morgan says.
Critics have noted that the ballot initiative might benefit one of Morgan’s friends and attorneys, Charlie Crist, if Crist runs for governor. Morgan denies that he’s doing this to get Crist into the governor’s mansion.
“When I decided to do this,’’ Morgan says, “I had a feeling Charlie was going to be offered a Cabinet position’’ with Obama.
For their campaign vehicle, Pollara and Morgan took over People United for Medical Marijuana, a grassroots group out of Orlando that had instituted a ballot initiative three years ago. People United had a mailing list and faithful volunteers but had raised only about $30,000 and collected only 31,000 petition signatures — way short of the 683,149 they need by Feb. 1 to force a referendum.
Pollara and Morgan quickly ponied up almost $200,000, retained a Nevada firm that specializes in signature gathering and rebranded the campaign “United for Care.”
Says Morgan: “The old acronym, PUFMM, sounded like a poster for a Cheech and Chong movie.”
Organized opposition to the ballot initiative will likely center in St. Petersburg with the Drug Free American Foundation and Save our Society From Drugs, not-for-profit corporations founded by wealthy Republican and anti-drug advocate Betty Sembler. With her husband, retail developer, one-time GOP finance chair and former ambassador Mel Sembler, she has championed drug treatment efforts for decades, co-founding the now defunct Straight center in Pinellas Park after discovering one of their sons was smoking pot.
Save Our Society will challenge the ballot initiative in court — probably over single subject requirements — says executive director Fay.
“Snake venom and oil were once considered medication before the FDA system took effect,’’ Fay says. “Look what happened to laetrile,’’ she says, referring to a substance in apricot pits promoted to fight cancer. “People circumvented the system and they died.’’
Advising the Sembler faction is St. Petersburg resident Carlton Turner, U.S. drug czar under President Reagan. Polls favor medical marijuana, he says, because people simply don’t know the facts.
Medical marijuana in other states is mainly a sham, Turner says. Registration data show that few patients actually suffer from cancer, MS and other terminal diseases. A large majority are men, aged 20 to 40, who report vague pain symptoms.
“They just want to get high,’’ Turner says, and a flood of legal pot into the market makes it hard for law enforcement to crack down on people growing and smoking illegally.
Pollara acknowledges that a few states that first passed medical marijuana in the 1990s “are a bit of a mess.’’
In California, storefront doctors authorize pot use on the spot. “You can walk down Venice Beach and see signs saying medical marijuana for $30,’’ Pollara says. “That’s precisely what we want to avoid here.’’
A better model comes from states that adopted medical marijuana more recently, he says. Some limit distribution to regulated dispensaries.
“People don’t want de facto legalization,’’ Pollara says. “We want to get it as tight a regulated system as possible.’’
Marijuana comes in numerous varieties. Some are higher in THC, an ingredient that eases pain, stimulates appetite and makes users high. Plants higher in CBD ease anxiety and muscle spasticity without altering the mind.
Medical marijuana cultivators can mix plants that are low in THC with plants high in CBD. That’s what Cathy Jordan’s husband was growing before Manatee authorities seized their plants this year.
Dr. Kevin Sabet, director of the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute, says cannabis-based prescription drugs make more sense than pot.
Marijuana is not medicine in the usual sense, he says. The FDA cannot approve an herb that has no consistent content or handling safeguards. Doctors authorize marijuana’s use in medical marijuana states, but they cannot prescribe it, because there is no set dosage. Two puffs of high-grade pot might equal an entire fat joint of cheap Mexican weed.
Sabet notes that a British drug company produces a marijuana extract called Sativex, with specific amounts of CBD and THC, that is legal in 22 countries for treatment of MS and is under consideration for FDA approval.
“There is no doubt that marijuana has some medical properties.’’ Sabet says. “The question is, do we need to smoke it? We don’t smoke opium to get the effects of morphine. We don’t chew willow bark to get the effects of aspirin.’’
Many proponents of medical marijuana say that even if affordable pharmaceuticals were developed, they might not address the variety of needs that different marijuana cultivars can meet.
Robert Jordan worries that drug companies would overcharge for patented cannabis extracts. “But if they produce something that is not too expensive and can do the same job my stuff does, I’m all for it,’’ he says.
Following a tip, deputies raided the Jordans’ property earlier this year and seized his plants, but the state attorney for Manatee County determined that the harvest was solely for Cathy’s use and declined to prosecute.
Now Jordan is growing a few new plants that are months from harvest. The Jordans buy Cathy’s supply on the street, keeping their fingers crossed they don’t get a contaminated batch.
Last month, the Jordans filed a court action, asking a judge to forbid further raids.
“I know it’s illegal,’’ Robert Jordan says, “But you are growing something that is keeping your wife alive. Come on.’’