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Florida Medical Marijuana Petition Pushes For 2014 Ballot Proposal

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TAMPA -- Michael Derigo arrived home from a trip to the grocery store June 25 to find half a dozen police cars surrounding his mobile home in Gibsonton. A neighbor had complained about his marijuana plants.

Since he was diagnosed with AIDS in 2004 and started on drugs to suppress it, Derigo, 59, has grown marijuana plants and juiced the leaves to drink. Unlike smoking dried leaves, he said, it doesn't get him high.

"I've been able to keep my weight on where I've seen others just shrivel up and die," he said.

Derigo has pleaded not guilty to possessing and manufacturing marijuana. His lawyer, Michael Minardi of Stuart, who specializes in such cases, plans a medical necessity defense.

"The war on drugs is a war on the American people," Derigo said. "People sometimes do less time for murder than for marijuana."

Cases such as his have led to a new petition drive to put a proposal on the 2014 ballot to legalize medical use of marijuana in Florida.

Similar efforts have failed before, but this one is backed by a new level of legal and political muscle -- mainly from trial lawyer John Morgan of the Morgan & Morgan firm, a major Democratic political fundraiser. With his help, the United for Care campaign group has crafted a ballot proposal and hired petition gatherers.

Asked how much he's willing to spend, Morgan, who's known for seven-figure contributions to charitable and political causes, said simply, "As much as it takes."

He plans to start running radio ads later this year; newspaper stories on the proposal have already drawn scores of volunteers, he said.

But the proposal could face high-powered opposition, possibly involving Republican political fundraiser, shopping center magnate and former ambassador Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg.

Sembler and his wife, Betty, are the founders of the charitable Drug Free America Foundation and a related public education group, Save Our Society from Drugs, which can act in political causes.

Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America, said discussions are starting on legal and political strategies against the initiative, but she didn't want to go into details.

Asked whether he'll be involved, Sembler would say only that if an opposition group "gets organized, I'll make that decision then." Betty Sembler couldn't be reached for comment.

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Morgan has a personal interest in the campaign.

His brother Tim, now 55, is a quadriplegic as result of an accident when he was a teenager and uses marijuana to control muscle spasms. Their father, who had esophageal cancer and emphysema, used it for nausea before his death.

His father "was just in agony, nauseated, sick," Morgan said. "He was one of these guys who said, 'Don't smoke, don't do drugs,' but Tim said try it. Overnight he was able to sit up and eat meals. He was able to enjoy life. It made his last days more restful and calm."

Controlling the spasms enables Tim to work for Morgan's firm, he added.

"This isn't Cheech and Chong," Morgan said. "This is people who have ALS, bone cancer where the pain is unrelenting, MS where their body is withering away. It wasn't party lights and strobe music with my dad and brother. It was just peace and lack of pain."

Ben Pollara, a veteran South Florida Democratic political strategist prominent in the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama presidential campaigns and in Alex Sink's 2010 gubernatorialrun, heads United for Care.

He and Morgan said their proposal is crafted to allow only tightly controlled, medically prescribed uses of marijuana, prohibiting home growing and and without contributing to recreational use -- which critics say has happened in other states.

The potential for abuse will be a subject of debate in a referendum campaign, promised Fay. But before that can happen, the organizers face a tight deadline to get the proposal on the ballot. They need petition signatures equal to 8 percent of the 2012 presidential election vote, or 683,149, verified by local elections supervisors by Feb. 1. Allowing for invalid signatures and time for verification, that means getting nearly 1 million by early January, Pollara said.

Paid petition gatherers charge $3 per signature, but volunteers will supply some, Morgan said.

Another hurdle is state Supreme Court approval of the amendment.

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Under the state Constitution, amendments proposed by citizen petitions, unlike those proposed by the state Legislature, must deal with a single subject. The court interprets that requirement strictly and has often used it to throw out proposed amendments.

The two-page marijuana amendment, which can be viewed at the www.unitedforcare.org, lists medical conditions for which marijuana may be prescribed; exempts it from mandatory insurance coverage; requires that the state Department of Health regulate dispensaries providing marijuana and related products; and sets up a system of state identification cards for prescribed users and their designated caregivers.

Pollara said he hopes to have 10 percent of the necessary signatures -- the number required for Supreme Court review -- in about a month.

He and Morgan took over a smaller-scale effort launched by a citizen activist, Kim Russell of Orlando, but decided to replace the amendment the group was pushing, ditch 30,000 signatures, and start from scratch.

"When we first met, John said this was not going to be a free-for-all, defacto legalization -- it has to be a tightly controlled situation," Pollara said.

They hired University of Florida law school professor Jon Mills, a former state House speaker whom Morgan called "the best constitutional lawyer in the state," to rework the amendment with an eye toward Supreme Court approval.

Using money left over from a political committee he ran last year, Pollara commissioned a poll that found support for the measure topped 60 percent, Florida's threshhold to pass a constitutional amendment.

An organized campaign could cut that level of support, but it would require substantial spending for advertising and voter outreach, said Fred Piccolo, a Republican political strategist.

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Fay, with Drug Free America, said there will be a legal challenge to the wording before the Supreme Court and a campaign against the measure if it gets on the ballot.

She called medical marijuana "a scam" intended to lead to legalization for recreational use.

It's dangerous, she contended, because users, already sick, risk ingesting an unregulated substance subject to contamination whose components and effects haven't been rigorously studied.

"Just because somebody says it makes them feel good, where do we draw the line? Crack cocaine?" Fay said. "We once had people peddling crude oil as a medicine in this country. Think of Laetrile -- it was a disaster," she said, speaking of the cancer treatment banned as poisonous in most states.

There's already an FDA-approved drug that includes the most sought after ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, Fay noted.

But advocates say this drug is a poor substitute, and other ingredients, notably cannabidiol, or CBD, provide some of the most important benefits with no psychoactive effect. Some grow strains rich with CBD but low in THC.

"We get emails from people all the time saying they were prescribed Marinol but couldn't afford it, or it gets them stoned, whereas one or two puffs of marijuana doesn't get them stoned and alleviates the symptoms," Pollara said.

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Marijuana user Derigo said his method of juicing the leaves calms nausea that would otherwise prevent him from eating, which would start the "downward spiral" of "AIDS wasting syndrome." It also eases pain from nerve damage caused by shingles that struck while his immune system was depressed.

Formerly a quality control engineer, Derigo hasn't worked for several years. He can't afford the synthetic opiates prescribed at pain clinics, even if he wanted to take them, and the county health department, which provides his AIDS treatment, doesn't give him anything effective for the nausea, he said.

Minardi, his lawyer, said he has handled about a dozen medical marijuana cases and has half a dozen pending. Prosecutors recently dropped charges against one, Robert Jordan of Parrish, charged with growing marijuana for his wife, who's confined to a wheelchair with ALS.

Nearly all his marijuana clients are over age 50.

There have been suggestions that Morgan, who hopes to back former Gov. Charlie Crist in a 2014 race against Gov. Rick Scott, hopes the amendment campaign will spur turnout of young and liberal voters likely to oppose Scott.

In response, Morgan said, "I started thinking about this way before I knew that (Crist) would be in this position. I don't think medical marijuana is going to motivate an 18-year-old. Legalizing it might."

Morgan is right, according to officials with the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group for legal use of marijuana that has participated in several medical use and legalization campaigns.

"Legalization initiatives do seem to have an impact on young voter turnout, at least based on exit poll studies, but we haven't seen the same dynamic on medical marijuana issues," said political director Steve Fox.

A 2012 study found "a significant boost" in youth turnout in elections on legalization measures in Colorado in 2000 and Oregon and Washington in 1998, he said, but there's been no indication of such an effect in the 2010 vote in Arizona on medical use. It passed by a razor-thin margin, 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7661 ___

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