A high-profile effort to legalize marijuana was all but killed by the Florida Supreme Court Thursday.
In a 5-2 decision, justices ruled a constitutional ballot initiative by the group Make it Legal Florida to be “misleading.” The ruling came after Attorney General Ashley Moody asked the justices to advise whether the potential constitutional initiative would be suitable for a future ballot.
Make It Legal’s proposal would have left it up to Florida voters to decide whether to allow Floridians older than 21 to possess and use up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. The initiative’s sponsor, backed by the Florida medical marijuana industry, had raised $8.2 million for the effort. It had also gathered more than 556,000 signatures out of the 891,589 needed for the measure to make the 2022 ballot.
Had it made the ballot, the initiative would have needed 60% of the vote to be added to the state Constitution.
If it wants to make a future ballot, Make It Legal Florida would now have to redraft the amendment and start from scratch.
Make It Legal’s attorney, George Levesque, referred a request for comment to Nick Hansen, the organization’s chairman. Hansen did not respond to requests for comment.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Charles Canady, a majority of justices took issue with Make it Legal Florida’s use of the word “permit” in the initiative’s ballot summary. The justices argued that the amendment did not effectively advise Floridians that although marijuana use would be allowed under state law if the amendment were to pass, it would still be illegal federally.
“A constitutional amendment cannot unequivocally ‘permit’ or authorize conduct that is criminalized under federal law,” Canady wrote. “A ballot summary suggesting otherwise is affirmatively misleading.”
Similar issues have previously come before the Florida Supreme Court. When it was considering whether to allow an amendment legalizing medical marijuana onto the 2016 ballot, the backers of that initiative avoided this pitfall, Canady wrote. The sponsors of the 2016 measure noted in their ballot summary that their initiative did not “immunize” Floridians from “violations of federal law.”
Justices approved that ballot’s language unanimously, and 71% of the electorate voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016.
STRICT PARAMETERS FOR BALLOT LANGUAGE
According to Florida law, summaries of proposed constitutional amendments provided to voters can be no longer than 75 words. Juan-Carlos “J.C.” Planas, an attorney in Miami who specializes in the area of state law that deals with constitutional ballot language, said the decision by the court on Thursday worried him. He said the court essentially argued Make It Legal Florida should have found a way to explain the federal consequences of a state proposal — along with everything else in the initiative — in just a few dozen words.
“I almost gagged reading it,” Planas said of the opinion. “I don’t care about the marijuana, per se. My issue is, how the hell do you craft a constitutional amendment now?”
Ben Pollara, who ran the 2016 medical marijuana campaign, said the court’s decision Thursday reflected the body’s shift rightward under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Three justices on the court appointed by DeSantis voted to strike down Make It Legal Florida’s initiative. The Florida House and Florida Senate — both controlled by Republicans — also filed briefs to the court opposing the initiative.
In a hearing last year, the court also appeared to be skeptical of a different, less well-funded marijuana proposal which sponsors were hoping to put on the 2022 ballot.
“Floridians would legalize marijuana tomorrow if given the opportunity to do so, but that’s clearly not what Tallahassee wants,” Pollara said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Moody’s office praised Thursday’s opinion.
“We thank the Florida Supreme Court for their time and attention to this issue and respect their ruling,” a Moody spokeswoman said in a statement. “Floridians must fully understand what they are voting on when they go to the ballot box.”
Source: Herald/ Times Tallahassee Bureau