Florida pot initiative goes up in smoke

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This Aug. 22, 2019 photo shows medical marijuana plants being grown before flowering during a media tour of the Curaleaf medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Ravena, N.Y. After legislative efforts stalled and a vaping sickness stirred new concerns, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut still want to make recreational pot legal. But the states have different approaches and timeframes, and some proposals have shifted since last year. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — For the second time in two months, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at allowing people to use recreational marijuana.

Justices, in a 5-2 decision, said a proposal by the political committee Sensible Florida included ballot wording that would mislead voters. By the same margin, the court in April rejected a recreational-pot proposal by the committee Make It Legal Florida.

During arguments in February 2020, justices appeared skeptical of the Sensible Florida proposal, which drew opposition from Attorney General Ashley Moody, the state House and groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce. 

The proposed amendment was framed as regulating marijuana similar to alcohol. But Thursday’s ruling focused on wording in the proposed ballot summary, which voters would see when they go to the polls. 

That summary said, in part, the measure would regulate marijuana “for limited use and growing” by people age 21 or older. But the Supreme Court majority said the summary was misleading because the full amendment would not limit the personal use of marijuana.

“The ballot summary here is not accurate. It falsely tells voters that the proposed amendment limits the use of recreational marijuana. Because the proposed amendment itself ‘does no such thing,’ it should not be placed on the ballot,” said the opinion, partially quoting from a court precedent about ballot initiatives.

The court majority was made up of Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Carlos Muniz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans — the same majority that scuttled the Make It Legal Florida proposal in April.

Justice Alan Lawson, in a dissent joined by Justice Jorge Labarga, acknowledged that Sensible Florida proposal was a “close case.” But he said the court should have read the ballot summary in conjunction with a ballot title that said, “Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol to Establish Age, Licensing, and Other Restrictions.” 

“And the (full) amendment itself details the ways that marijuana use would be regulated similar to Florida’s current regulations affecting alcohol use,” Lawson wrote. “Therefore, reading the title and summary together, ‘limited use’ could also be understood as a reference to the regulations disclosed in the aptly descriptive title.”

Backers of proposed constitutional amendments need to submit 891,589 valid petition signatures and get Supreme Court approval of the ballot wording before they can take issues to voters in the November 2022 election. Sensible Florida had 29,172 valid signatures as of Thursday — though another 66,513 signatures had expired, according to the Florida Division of State website.

The Supreme Court rejected the Make It Legal Florida proposal for different reasons than the Sensible Florida initiative.

Justices said the ballot summary of the Make It Legal Florida measure would mislead “voters into believing that the recreational use of marijuana in Florida will be free of any repercussions, criminal or otherwise.” The conclusion of it being misleading stemmed from marijuana remaining illegal under federal law. 

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