JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida is one step away from legalizing medical marijuana. In November voters will decide if they should allow widespread sale and use of cannibis by saying "yay" or "nay" on The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, commonly known as Amendment 2.
Medical cannabis is already legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia and is hailed by some as a wonder drug, a cure to a wide range of ailments.
Among the proponents are the parents of 3-year-old Dahlia Barnhart, who was diagnosed last May with a very aggressive and rare form of brain cancer.
Her mother, Moriah Barnhart, said the chemotherapy wasn't working well and Dahlia was on her death bed until she started medical marijuana treatment.
"This type of disease has such a low success rate with conventional treatments, I really felt I had no option but to utilize it, to see if it helped and to go from there. So I picked up and moved to Colorado," said Barnhart.
Dahlia takes cannabis oil by mouth. It has low levels of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) to keep her from getting high off the drug. Mom says the tumor is shrinking.
Barnhart, who is now part of the advocacy group "Cannamoms," knows there are critics but stands behind her decision to give her daughter cannabis.
"We have been brainwashed and I know speaking for myself I was one of those people before I was in the situation," Barnhart said. "There is really nothing that can mean more than what I see with my own eyes. And her quality-of-life and the fact that she went from being on her deathbed to being a happy and playful, energetic toddler."
Marijuana is hailed by many as a miracle medicine for the worst cancers and other debilitating diseases.
Cathy Jordan has smoked marijuana since 1989.
Jordan, whose voice is week and body is confined to an electric wheelchair, isn't the person many would expect to be a marijuana user. But she says it's the reason she's alive today.
Jordan was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1986. Doctors said she had less than 5 years to live. But she found pot halted the debilitating disease's progress.
"No doctor ever told me to stop. No one ever told me to stop," said Jordan.
She's lived with the illness for 28 years now, something that's practically unheard of. It's earned her the nickname "The Myth."
Jordan told News4Jax that she believes it's all thanks to cannabis, which is why she is now one of the biggest supporters of Amendment 2.
Steve DeAngelo, founder and Executive Director of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, said he has learned more about how and why marijuana had been illegal and developed a passion to tell the world about it.
"The truth about cannabis is, it is possibly the most valuable plant that there is on this planet," DeAngelo said. "The medicine is incredibly efficacious and safe for a very wide range of medical conditions."
Amendment 2's Opponents
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford stands with the Florida Sheriff's Association against legalizing medical marijuana. He says the wording in the Amendment 2 ballot petition paves the way for widespread abuse.
"If you want to pass it for those debilitating medical conditions, no problem. But don't tell people it is going to be for debilitating medical conditions and then they find out well actually you can use it for any medical condition. Anything: headaches, back aches, tennis elbow.," Rutherford said.
The sheriff noted marijuana is already legal in the Sunshine State for those with documented medical necessity, and it's long been available in a prescription drug called Marinol.
Lawmakers just recently approved a special strain called "Charlotte's Web," which removes the chemicals that can make patients high. It's taken by mouth, not smoked, and is intended for children.
But the sheriff warns if Amendment 2 passes, a number of problems will arise.
"We will have medical marijuana in every backpack in every school in Duval County," said Rutherford. "You can pretty much bet on that. Because it will be just like the pill mills. The doctors will give it to anybody that asks for it, anybody that will show up and turn over the money that they will be passing it out."
"Cannabiz" - Florida could make millions off legalization
Recent polls show most Florida voters support the Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative. A survey from the United for Care organization released in June found that seven out of 10 Florida voters approve of Amendment 2.
It only take a 60 percent majority for an amendment to be added to the Florida constitution.
Those in favor say it could bring tons of tax revenue to the state but those against it say it'll increase enforcement costs and health problems.
State of Florida economic forecasting reports estimate medical marijuana could cost over $1 million a year to regulate. But it could potentially bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, just like it's doing in states where it's already legal.
The proposal to legalize weed as a treatment for a number of conditions is growing in popularity.
The "Cannabiz" conference in Orlando brought hundreds of supporters together. The Florida Cannabis Coalition held it for people looking to make marijuana a reality in the Sunshine State. The room was filled with potential users, growers and distributors.
"We transform cannabis into something that is predictable, so you know how it is going to make you feel before you feel it," said Dooma Wendschuh. "And it's reliable, so every time you try it you are going to have the same exact sensation."
Wendschuh is an entrepreneur, running a successful marijuana manufacturing company called Ebbu in Denver, Colorado, where pot is legal both medically and for recreation.
"It is a safer product than alcohol. It is a healthier product than alcohol," said Wendschuh.
He told News4Jax that weed has energized Colorado.
"It has been legal since Janfuary 1. They have not even seen a large increase in crime. There have been fewer DUIs for driving while intoxicated. The sky has not fallen," said Wendschuh.
Wendschuh points out that the economy in Denver is "tremendous." City leaders are estimating collecting $90 million in tax revenue just from this year's sale of cannabis.
The state of Colorado as a whole expects to raise about $184 million in taxes in a year and a half. Much of that money will be used for programs to teach kids to stay away from pot.
But how much could Florida make if Amendment 2 passes? It depends on a lot of factors in the hands of our lawmakers.
According to a recent report by the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, state economists estimate more than 400,000 people would qualify for the drug.
Regulating it would cost Florida about $1.1 million, not including law enforcement.
But with taxes and fees the business could bring in anywhere from $8 million a year to more than $330 million. Lawmakers backing the idea say it's a remedy for Florida's financial problems.
Sen. Jeff Clemens told News4Jax, "we won't be arresting people for small time drug offenses and spending your tax dollars and my tax dollars putting them in prison for years."
Proponents say it would bring news businesses and jobs.
News4Jax asked Wayne Erdman, who has an interest in the new business, if he would open a dispensary in Florida if the law was passed.
"Yes, I want to leave Louisiana and set up a business that I can retire with," Erdman said.
Opponents: Don't let Florida go to pot
Opponents say medical marijuana is not all it's cracked up to be.
"As access increases, as price drops, usage increases," said Susan Pitman, director of Drug Free Duval.
Her organizers stand behind the state-wide "Don't Let Florida Go to Pot" initiative.
Pitman also said that weed is addicting, and if it is legalized through Amendment 2, crime will increase and more people will get hooked. She says the area's drug rehab centers are already swamped with patients who abuse pot.
"If we already have 60 percent of our residents that are ending up in treatment for Cannabis-use disorder, we are concerned that if it becomes for accessible, we will have even a larger issue here in Duval County," said Pitman.
A nationwide study found that one in eight high school seniors admitted to driving after using pot and marijuana use contributed to 12 percent of traffic deaths in 2010.
Amendment 2's opponents worry that legal marijuana will encourage some doctors to pass the plant out like candy, disregarding patient safety to make big profits.
Sheriff Rutherford warned, "It will be just like the pill mills. The doctors will give it to anybody that asks for it, anybody that will show up and turn over the money that they will be passing it out."
The sheriff and those at Drug Free Duval say they're not opposed to medical marijuana as a whole, and they do believe it can help. But they don't think widespread legalization as it's written in Amendment 2 is the answer. They say there are already some strains, like Charlotte's web, which are legal and can help patients who need it.
Lawmakers have total control over how it will be regulated and will have a few months to draft the wording of the law. For example, they'll be tasked with deciding if it will be taxed, and how much, and how patients will be able to use it. It's unclear right now if they'll be able to smoke it, eat it or take it in pill or oil form.
If the amendment passes on November 4, legislators will have 6 months to come up with rules and regulations and everything would have to be up and running 9 months after the amendment passes.
Lawmakers take different stances on polarizing issue
The Florida Division of Elections verified that 786,000 people signed the petition to get Amendment 2 on the ballot. If six out of 10 voters vote "yes" in November, it will become a law.
"There's no questions that the constitutional amendment is going to pass this year," said Palm Beach state Sen. Jeff Clemens. "The polls show it running anywhere from 70-85 percent in favor. I think people have realized that we need to get over that 1960s-era reefer madness type of attitude."
Clemens has been pushing for legalization for years. He's the first Florida senator to introduce a medical marijuana bill. Today, he's behind the 157-page Senate Bill 0962, which would make it happen this time around.
"It's all about compassion. These are all people that need our help. When somebody rolls into your office in a wheelchair, and they tell you they've tried all the heavy narcotics drugs and they make them feel terrible and they don't work. Then they try cannabis and it helps them deal with their MS, cancer treatments. It's hard to look those people in the eye and say 'I don't want to help you.'"
Clemens knows it's a slippery slope, but assures voters lawmakers will proceed with caution.
"So when you hear some of the opponents of this amendment talk about how children are going to have access to marijuana and how this will be another pill mill situation, that's just simply not true," Clemens said. "The legislation and governor's office will have the responsibility to implement certain rules to deal with those situations.
Local leaders, like Sen. Aaron Bean, are worried about the Amendment 2 because it's too broad and too vague.
"It's just too loosely worded to where it could open the door to legalizing recreational marijuana which I think would be a disaster for our state," said Bean, a Republican from Fernandina Beach.
Bean does believe in the healing power of medical marijuana, but wants the state to stick behind low-THC versions that don't make patients high.
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Clay County Republican, says the hope is to introduce medical marijuana in a responsible way so it doesn't become a problem even though some people may not favor the bill.
"It's the right thing to do and we were all elected to do the right thing," Bradley told News4Jax.
Both Bradley and Bean sponsor Senate Bill 1030.
More access to marijuana, even if it is medical, has some concerned.
Marijuana's effects on youths
Lawrence Hills says medical marijuana will make his job a lot more difficult.
Hills runs Duval County's Teen Court program. It's an alternative to jail that tries to keep first-time misdemeanor offenders out of trouble. He says 64 percent of teens in the program are coming in testing positive for marijuana.
"I think that certainly marijuana use is associated with a lot of other crimes, particularly entry level crimes," said Hills.
Teen court counselors are trying to teach the kids to stay away from crime and drugs. They are active in community service projects, like volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank. Administrators worry that if medical marijuana is legal, more children will have to come through this program.
"I think it would make it a lot easier for them to get their hands on medical marijuana," Hills told News4Jax. "From the stand point we have, we have a huge problem with prescription drugs. If a doctor can write a prescription and these kids are exchanging it in school, I think it will be the same for marijuana.