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Marijuana steps forward on state, national stages

Marijuana advocates may have not one but two milestones to celebrate this month – the inclusion of a pro-legalization plank in the Democratic National Party platform for the first time in history, and the first-ever steps toward medical marijuana in the conservatively-governed state of Florida.

The Democratic National Convention, which kicks off next week in Philadelphia, may include, for the first time, a statement calling for “a reasoned pathway for future legalization" of  the drug, which is currently still classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic – the same as LSD and heroin – under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The party’s drafting committee made the first move in late June, and the statement was finalized earlier this month during a meeting in Orlando. It won’t be official, however, until delegates in Philadelphia approve the move.

The plank states: “Because of conflicting laws concerning marijuana, both on the federal and state levels, we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from its list as a Class 1 Federal Controlled Substance, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization."

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders had long sought the plank. Specifically, it calls for the drug to be downgraded from its current status, more research be done on its potential benefits, and giving states more flexibility to experiment with cannabis laws.

The plank’s inclusion in the Democratic platform comes as the state of Florida this month began harvesting its first medical marijuana crop, joining a long list of states that have approved the drug for certain medical patients. The Florida program is highly restrictive and only allows low-strength marijuana, however, making it a relatively weak effort in the eyes of many legal experts – although that could change in November.

Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia and the territory of Guam have legalized marijuana for medical use, starting with California in 1996. Seventeen more states have approved low-strength marijuana for medical use, while full-strength, recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington.

In November, voters in 13 more states will consider a variety of marijuana legalization measures, ranging from medical use to full-strength recreational use. In Florida, voters will consider allowing full-strength marijuana for patients with debilitating illnesses, which would allow an estimated 450,000 more Floridians to use the drug. Sixty percent of Florida voters must approve the idea.

Karmen Hanson, health program manager for the Colorado-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said that, historically, marijuana initiatives don’t automatically benefit by being on a higher-turnout, presidential-election-year ballot. What matters more, she said, is funding and organization to get the initiative on the ballot in the first place.

“Getting qualified for the ballot is the biggest hurdle, whether it’s a percentage of registered voters by county or however the state defines it,” Hanson told AMI Newswire. “When a group has the money to help pay to get the signatures collected, that will increase the odds of making the ballot.”

Hanson points out that Florida’s current laws are among the most restrictive in the country. Only six companies are being allowed to grow the crop, and the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) amount is limited to prevent the kind of euphoric “high” produced by regular marijuana. It is only available to medical patients who have been seeing the same state-approved physician for at least 90 days – and state law still prohibits smoking it, which means it can only be legally consumed as an oil, spray, balm or capsule.

“It’s not considered very comprehensive,” Hanson said of the Florida program.

Still, opponents are mobilizing against the November initiative, noting that the laws were passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, but were not approved by voters as a state constitutional amendment would have been.

Furthermore, a spokeswoman for an opposition group told the Associated Press this week that a state law could be altered and improved each year if necessary, while a constitutional amendment cannot. 

Likewise, there are several national medical organizations that remain opposed to the idea of medical marijuana. Those include the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Treatment Research Institute. Other prominent groups, such as the American Medical Association, have dodged the yes-or-no question and have simply called for more research, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.