<p>For now, turning marijuana into Volusia County’s next big cash crop is the butt of jokes among fern growers. </p><p>“Cultivating marijuana would be a breeze as far as agricultural practices are concerned,” said David Register, executive vice president of Seville-based Fern Trust Inc., who said he’s gotten one serious inquiry from a grower. “I think it is something we would be ideally suited for. We grow crops that are very similar.” </p><p>While marijuana might be a laughing matter for fern growers now, it’s already a serious issue for city planners, law enforcement, human resource professionals and the estimated 400,000-plus patients who could qualify to use the drug. Voters will consider a constitutional amendment in the Nov. 4 election that would legalize marijuana for medical purposes, expanding upon a new law that allows for the use of a non-euphoric strain of medical marijuana, commonly referred to as Charlotte’s Web, to treat epilepsy. </p><p>The amendment’s language has been approved by the courts, but opponents and supporters have drastically differing opinions as to what it would mean for Florida. Some see a pot free-for-all where unscrupulous doctors would hand out recommendations, moving the Sunshine State one step closer to legalizing the drug for recreational use. The amendment’s supporters argue tightly controlled medical marijuana will provide the terminally and seriously ill much-needed relief from suffering. </p><p>Unlike in California — where $50 can buy a medical marijuana card — Floridians would only be able to obtain the drug from state-licensed dispensaries if they have a certificate from a doctor and a card issued by the Florida Department of Health.</p><h3>WHAT THE AMENDMENT SAYS</h3> <p>The amendment provides a broad outline of how medical marijuana would work in Florida, while leaving specific regulations to be crafted by the Department of Health. </p><p>If approved, medical use of marijuana by a qualified patient or personal caregiver would not be subject to criminal charges or civil liability for possessing cannabis. Physicians licensed in Florida would be able to provide certificates stating the benefits of using marijuana outweigh the potential risks for patients suffering from a “debilitating medical condition.” </p><p>The doctor must physically examine the patient and review his or her medical history before signing the document. The certificate would then be sent to the Florida Department of Health, which would issue a medical marijuana patient identification card. </p><p>The amendment would grant immunity to doctors if they recommend marijuana in a manner consistent with its wording. It doesn’t rule out medical marijuana for minors, provided a parent or guardian gives consent. </p><p>The identification card would only be valid for a set length of time, said Ben Pollara, director of United for Care, the primary group pushing for medical marijuana. The amendment’s language does not explicitly mention this, but it does provide for the Department of Health to develop regulations on issuing the cards. </p><p>“You don’t get a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card for using marijuana,” Pollara said. </p><p>Caregivers who are 21 years or older would be able to assist up to five patients in obtaining medical marijuana, but they are barred from using the drug. Marijuana could only be obtained at a medical marijuana treatment center, which would be registered with the state to dispense the drug. </p><p>If approved, the Department of Health must develop regulations within six months of the Jan. 6 effective date and begin issuing identification cards within nine months. </p><p>Several questions need to be answered, such as how much marijuana a patient could possess, how many growing operations would be needed and how often dispensaries would be inspected.</p><h3>OPPONENTS CITE ‘OTHER CONDITIONS’</h3> <p>The amendment defines “a debilitating medical condition” as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. The amendment also includes language not included in the ballot summary voters will see that allows for the use of marijuana to treat “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”</p><p>That language has been a source of contention. </p><p>Attorney General Pam Bondi argued the amendment is misleading because it would allow for “limitless use” of medical marijuana to treat minor aches and pain, but the Florida Supreme Court wrote in its majority opinion the ballot summary provides a fair explanation of the amendment’s intent to only provide marijuana to patients suffering from a “serious medical condition or disease.” </p><p>A group called Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot, heavily backed by Nevada casino magnate and GOP supporter Sheldon Adelson, is pointing to the “other conditions” language as being the gateway that will allow for abuse. </p><p>Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the amendment will open the door for unscrupulous doctors freely handing out recommendations for medical marijuana, similar to the pill mills that dispensed prescription painkillers and made Florida an epicenter of prescription drug abuse. </p><p>“It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Judd, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association and a representative of Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot. “This is not about medicine. This is about legalizing marijuana in the state of Florida.”</p><p>But the amendment’s supporters say medical marijuana will be tightly controlled, and the amendment includes safeguards to prevent abuse. Speaking to the Tiger Bay Club of Volusia County and to The News-Journal, personal injury attorney and medical marijuana backer John Morgan said Florida will not become California. For instance, unlike in California, the amendment does not allow for patients to grow marijuana at home. </p><p>“It’s not that it’s all of a sudden a free-for-all, people start setting up tents, and it’s Woodstock statewide,” Morgan said.</p><p>Local law enforcement leaders are split on what medical marijuana would mean for Florida. Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre doesn’t expect a spike in crime if Amendment 2 passes, and the approach deputies take toward driving under the influence or the public smoking of marijuana would remain largely unchanged. </p><p>“Whenever you introduce a new prescription into the community, you have to track its usage and whether there is any abuse,” Manfre said. “I don’t believe this is a law enforcement issue. It’s a medical issue.” </p><p>Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson wrote in an op-ed to The News-Journal that medical marijuana would “produce disastrous results.” He declined to comment further last week on the issue.</p><h3>GEARING UP</h3> <p>With polls showing support for medical marijuana among voters, preparations are underway for its introduction in Florida. </p><p>The Florida Department of Health estimates 417,252 patients and 250,351 caregivers would qualify for the medical marijuana program, requiring 1,789 medical marijuana treatment centers. Estimates for sales tax revenue from medical marijuana users vary from $8 million on the low end to $338 million. </p><p>Flagler Beach approved an ordinance last month that will restrict medical marijuana businesses to commercial highway zoning, which covers State Road 100 — the main thoroughfare into town — west of the beachside. </p><p>Mayor Linda Provencher says the town of 4,500 residents wanted to get ahead of the issue and ensure businesses are in appropriate locations. Flagler Beach’s ordinance would bar drive-through transactions, loitering outside dispensaries and the consumption of alcohol on the premises. Dispensaries could not be within 2,500 feet of an existing school, day care, church or public park. </p><p>Ponce Inlet is considering a similar ordinance. </p><p>Other cities wanting to regulate medical marijuana operations should start crafting ordinances sooner rather than later to prevent marijuana-related businesses from being grandfathered, said Mary Swiderski, executive director of the Volusia Council of Governments. </p><p>The Society for Human Resources Management of Volusia/Flagler is contemplating how medical marijuana could affect their existing drug-use policies, said Al Truesdell, legislative chair and a Winter Park employment lawyer. Companies typically don’t make allowances for the medical use of marijuana, but that could be challenged in court if it were legalized in Florida.</p><p>“You want your workers to perform their job functions with clarity,” he said. “It’s definitely a new issue that employers are struggling with.” </p><p>The amendment does state employers do not have to accommodate “on-site medical use of marijuana.” Also, driving under the influence of marijuana would remain illegal, and health insurance companies would not be required to pay for medical marijuana.</p><h3>A BUDDING INDUSTRY?</h3> <p>Others are eying medical marijuana as a potential business opportunity.</p><p>The Cannabis University of Florida — based in Jacksonville — is hoping to offer seminars in Daytona Beach on growing and selling medical marijuana, said CEO Donovan Carr. His company has already held sessions in Jacksonville and elsewhere in the state. </p><p>Roger Lusk, a supervisor for Causey Fern Inc. in Crescent City, said he doesn’t want his operation to be left out of the medical marijuana business. He’d like to at least have the option of growing the crop, considering his 1,000-acre farm’s long history and reputation. </p><p>“If anybody should be able to grow it, we should,” Lusk said. “There’s going to be money in it, and that’s what we are in business for.” </p><p>Fern grower Register said marijuana would pose challenges, such as securing the crop and navigating a business that has traditionally been confined to the black market. So far, he hasn’t heard any serious discussions of turning Pierson and northwest Volusia County into the marijuana-growing capital of Florida. </p><p>In Flagler County, longtime farmer Sam Bertha said he knows two or three growers in his area who would be interested in growing marijuana. Bertha, who described himself as “old school,” said he plans to stick with the type of grass he’s accustomed to growing — sod. </p><p>But others might be willing to dabble in growing cannabis if the opportunity presented itself, Bertha said. </p><p>“I bet there’s a lot that would be interested in it,” he said. “Money always attracts attention.”</p>
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