Miami Beach backs medical marijuana; is Florida next?

Miami Beach voters became the first in Florida to call for the decriminalization of marijuana for medical use in a Tuesday vote that gives a glimpse of statewide support for the issue.

The 64-36 percent approval jibed with state and national polls that show medical-marijuana support approaching 60 percent or more.

The non-binding straw poll — calling on the city to ask the state and federal governments to allow medical cannabis — was so popular that it garnered about 1,000 more votes than the leading candidate for mayor, Philip Levine.

The group People United for Medical Marijuana, which is backing a proposed constitutional amendment to make Florida the 20th pot-decriminalization state, hopes Tuesday’s Miami Beach vote reflects state sentiment.

“It speaks pretty positively to our chances next November,” said Benjamin Pollara, treasurer of the Orlando-based group.

“This was a very low turnout election in Miami Beach,” he said, “it’s a relatively old electorate, and yet it still got close to 65 percent of the vote.”

But opponents say the small 25 percent turnout election in the Democratic-leaning city undercuts the importance of the 6,683 favorable straw-poll votes. They also draw a distinction between the 24-word nonbinding referendum and the two-page statewide initiative.

“Florida’s initiative, like efforts in other states, is about the legalization of marijuana cultivation, marketing, sales, distribution, and use,” Calvina Fay, executive director of the Clearwater-based Drug Free America Foundation, said in a written statement.

“It is about creating a ‘Big Marijuana’ industry like the ‘Big Tobacco’ industry,” Fay wrote. “Once voters understand this, they are less likely to support such a dangerous concept.”

The Florida amendment’s language limits marijuana to medical purposes as determined by a licensed Florida physician, but Fay’s group says the restriction is a distinction without a difference because pot could be prescribed for the most-basic of ailments.

Also, medical marijuana has been a precursor to outright legalization in places like Maine.

Maine’s largest city, Portland, became the first East Coast city on Tuesday to legalize personal marijuana possession by adults. Three Michigan cities on the same day decriminalized pot possession, with Lansing removing all criminal and civil penalties in the same way as Portland.

Now, cities in 14 states have decriminalized it.

Also on Tuesday, Colorado voters approved a 25 percent tax on marijuana sales. That state had legalized personal marijuana use last year.

Nationwide, a recent Gallup poll found support for pure legalization has reached an all-time high, 58 percent.

“The movement to legalize marijuana mirrors the relatively recent success of the movement to legalize gay marriage, which voters have also approved now in 14 states,” according to a Gallup analysis.

Two polls taken by Florida’s medical-marijuana group indicated that voters here still oppose outright legalization of marijuana.

But the back-to-back polls showed voters backed medical marijuana use by 78 percent and 71 percent. A more-recent survey taken by Public Policy Polling indicated 62 percent of Florida voters would support it.

Pollster David Beattie, who conducted one of those surveys, said support is increasing for marijuana’s medical use or decriminalization for a variety of reasons, including seniors who became familiar with the drug in the 1960s and don’t see it as the devil weed portrayed in decades-old scare movies like Reefer Madness.

To make a proposed constitutional amendment a law in Florida, 60 percent of voters have to approve of it.

But before voters decide the matter, the Florida Supreme Court has to deem the ballot summary of the measure isn’t misleading. And then supporters have to gather 683,149 verified voter signatures by February.

People United says it has gathered about 200,000 so far, of which more than 110,000 have been verified.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has asked the state Supreme Court to throw the measure off the 2014 ballot, saying the summary is misleading. People United denies the charge.

Bondi’s fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Scott, also opposes the measure. So do the GOP leaders of the Legislature, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, who say they plan to join Bondi’s opposition in court.

The Legislature has refused to put medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot. Legislators have repeatedly refused to give the issue a hearing, even ignoring the 2010 request of the city of South Miami commissioners to consider it.

The two leading Democrats who want to challenge Scott next year, Charlie Crist and Nan Rich, say they support medical marijuana. Crist’s boss, trial lawyer John Morgan, is leading the People United initiative.

But Morgan has said the effort is nonpartisan and is about one thing: medicine for sick people.

In Miami Beach, the straw ballot question grew out of the making of the Square Grouper documentary by local production company Rakontur in 2010.

“With Miami Beach being a leader in progressive laws, we thought a decriminalization effort would be a good idea because it was happening around the country,” said Billy Corben, who founded Rakontur with Alfred Spellman.

They helped start a petition drive that was eventually taken over by the group Sensible Florida, which gathered about 8,000 voter signatures in an effort to stop Miami Beach police from jailing people with personal amounts of marijuana of 20 grams or less.

The City of Miami Beach balked at the initial proposal, the two sides negotiated and, eventually, Miami Beach put the nonbinding straw poll question limited to medical marijuana before voters.

For 35-year-old beach resident Michael McAllister, it was an easy vote.

“If you can prescribe dangerous opiates, why can’t you do it with something less dangerous like marijuana?” he asked. “It’s common sense.”

Related stories from Miami Herald