By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida's Supreme Court justices raised concerns on Thursday at a hearing on a proposed constitutional ballot amendment to allow medical use of marijuana, questioning whether its language might mislead voters into legalizing nearly wide-open pot smoking.
The hour-long legal presentations by former House Speaker Jon Mills of Gainesville, in defense of the proposed amendment, and state Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who was seeking to block it from the 2014 ballot, focused on two points.
By law, the seven justices will not rule on the merits of marijuana legalization, but will decide only if the proposed ballot is specific enough and whether its title and summary sufficiently explain what it does.
Winsor said the ballot summary is misleading because it refers to prescribing marijuana "for debilitating diseases," while the amendment itself refers to "debilitating conditions" in the title.
"You don't even have to have a disease to get marijuana, the way this amendment is worded," he said.
He also argued that the wording is deceptive in saying that nothing in the amendment authorizes violation of federal drug laws. Except in certain tightly controlled research conditions, Winsor said, it is illegal to possess or use marijuana. He said the amendment implies that state authorization of medical marijuana use would somehow trump federal law.
Mills, a former University of Florida law school dean who helped craft the amendment, said the average voter knows the state amendment can't authorize violation of federal law.
"But it does," interrupted Justice Charles Canady. "It certainly authorizes conditions under state law that would be a violation of federal law."
Chief Justice Ricky Polston asked Mills if "a student stressed out over an exam" might get a marijuana prescription for that "condition." Justice Barbara Pariente said: "If I have chronic back pain, is that a condition or a disease?"
Mills replied that the amendment imposes a two-part criteria for doctors, requiring them to find that a patient has a debilitating condition and that "the benefits outweigh the risks" of marijuana use. Taken together, he said, those terms would prevent physicians from handing out pot prescriptions to anyone who wants them.
The legal and medical arguments are overshadowed by politics in Florida. Morgan is a major backer of ex-Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who is now a leading Democratic candidate for governor next year. Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican leadership of the legislature, along with Attorney General Pam Bondi, vigorously oppose the marijuana initiative on constitutional grounds.
There is also a tactical consideration, in that strategists believe a pot initiative would bring out more young and minority Floridians - who, statistically, don't vote Republican.
The seven justices gave no indication when they might rule. People United for Medical Marijuana, the organization sponsoring the amendment, has until February 1 to certify 683,159 voter signatures - 8 percent of the turnout in the past presidential election - to get the amendment on the ballot.
John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer backing the amendment, sat through the arguments and expressed confidence that the court "understands the issue." He said proponents are handicapped by the 75-word limit on ballot summaries, and could not spell out details of state and federal jurisdiction or define "debilitating" afflictions like AIDS, ALS and cancer.
"What is a disease, what is a condition, what is sickness?" asked Morgan after the court recessed, adding that most Americans are familiar with the federal law on marijuana. "If that's going to be the issue that's going to deny compassion to all these people, so be it," he said.
(Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)