Amendment 2: Which way will you go?

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Amendment 2 is making waves throughout Florida and right here in St. Pete the conversation has gotten a little heated. The community gathered at the Childs Park Recreation Center, located at 4301 13th Ave. S., hoping to get some information on the new proposal to make medical marijuana legal, but not everyone on the panel saw eye-to-eye.

The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, otherwise known as Amendment 2, is set to be voted on next week. Placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment with voter approval, Amendment 2 would legalize marijuana for medical purposes. However, opponents of legalization argue the amendment is too loosely written and will cause more harm than good.

IMG_8844Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, community activist Kurt Donley and Eckerd College Assistant Professor of Biology, Dr. Greg Gerdeman, all took part in an expert panel to help guide voters to making the right decision come poll time.

“If someone is truly at the end of life I don’t want to see anybody suffer,” said Gualtieri. “But this amendment is not about that.”

Gualtieri argued that language of the constitutional amendment is too broad and holds loopholes that will make it easier for drug dealers, addicts, and thrill seeking teens to get their hands on the illegal stash. “What this amendment does is legalize the smoking of marijuana.”

The panel agreed that there is a legitimate medicinal value with marijuana, but as the sheriff pointed out, there is already THC drugs, like the drug Marinol, out on the market that doctors can prescribe to help ease pain and suffering among terminal patients.

So why legalize pot when there is already something out there to help? Proponents of Amendment 2 have a lot to say on that.

Gerdeman knows all about the drug Marinol citing its use since the 80s to cure nausea. But according to the professor, the drug can be too much for some to handle and the cost can be astronomical.

“It’s the caviar of medicine,” he said. But the high price tag and in Gerdeman’s opinion, lack of therapeutic effect, make a cheaper and more tolerable alternative attractive to the general public in need of a painkiller.

Gualtieri didn’t falter in his argument about the repercussions that would be felt if Amendment 2 passed as is. With more officers involved in the policing of the “pot shops” that some experts say will line streets, possibly right next door to you, other areas of police work may take a backseat.

Instead of keeping neighborhoods safe, law enforcement feel they will be inundated with marijuana related offenses from those looking to score some for a good time, to rogue doctors prescribing unlimited cannabis to anyone willing to pay 75 bucks.

“Look what we just went through in the pill mills,” said Gualtieri describing the doctors who disregarded regulations that demanded patient histories and physicals be completed before prescribing pain meds. “You showed up, paid and went out and got as many pills as you could.”

But resident Walter Evans has confidence in law enforcement’s ability to reign it all in, placing Gualtieri on the spot when he brought attention to the fact that lines at pill mills no longer exist and there has been no talk of any overdoses. “If you can control the doctors and how they dispense the hard pain killers, why can’t we do the same for marijuana,” he asked.

Gualtieri it seemed was outnumbered by those in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, the sheriff’s attempts at explaining the potential pitfalls, such as the State Department of Health’s inability to institute sufficient controls in managing the distribution of the drug within the time allotted under the amendment, falling on deaf ears.

Panel participants Donley and Gerdeman support Amendment 2 and are more laid back with its broad language. While Donley who suffered a stroke some five years ago can’t sing the praises of pot loud enough, Gerdeman feels any debate over phrasing can be ironed out in the aftermath.

“I think this absolutely will be regulated,” he said. Gerdeman believes setting up a database registry of clinicians that subscribe will be top priority if it passes and enforcement of those not complying will go smoothly.

A question regarding public safety if marijuana was made legal whether for medicinal purposes or the general public was posed to the sheriff as well.  “What harm is legalizing actually going to have?” a community member asked.

Gualtieri listed his reasons. One of which concerns the amendment’s reference to medical use of marijuana being granted to anyone perceived by a doctor to have a debilitating condition. Gualtieri argued the language means any type of doctor, such as a chiropractor could okay a trip to the pot shop.

Instead, Gualtieri would prefer a medical marijuana amendment focused on specific medical uses instead of the amendment’s references to debilitating conditions in general language, which he equates to recreational use.

By the end of the evening though it seemed the panel was spinning its wheels, unable to agree on anything concerning the amendment, while community members weighed internally what the passing of Amendment 2 will mean for their families. One resident spoke out about patients in Pinellas being arrested for treating medical conditions with cannabis, asking how law enforcement arresting patients benefits anyone.

Gualtieri tried to squelch that concern with a definite denial that anyone on their deathbed is being arrested.

But Donley quickly jumped on the Sherriff’s response inciting race into the issue of legalizing medical marijuana. “It’s the last of the Jim Crowe laws to arrest blacks,” he said.

With recent reports comparing black arrests for marijuana as being five times more likely than arrests on whites, it’s no doubt some community members are wondering if legalizing the plant isn’t better for minorities.

Gualtieri shifted the focus back to the initial question, explaining the debate of course isn’t with the dying, but with those using marijuana to treat other conditions like anxiety, menstrual cramps, or minor back pain. While he worries pot will be too easy for scammers, frauds and virtually anyone wanting to acquire it, he also wants to limit the potential issues with addiction that may crop up with those looking to score dope to deal with minor pain.

“One of the crux problems we have is addiction; we have an addictive society,” said the sheriff who witnesses the community’s inability to use alcohol and other legal drugs such as prescriptions in a responsible way each day. “Why are we going to throw something else on the table that is going to be susceptible to abuse?”

But his arguments seemed to be lost on those in attendance, at least those asking the questions. The next question being, “What danger does it pose to the actual community?”

“No different than any of the other drugs that are out there,” said Gualtieri.

The last day to vote yes or no on Amendment 2 is Election Day, November 4.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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