For the second time in three years, Floridians will go to the polls in November and weigh in on a proposed state constitutional amendment that, if passed, would legalize medical marijuana.
A similar proposal failed in 2014 — by less than 3 percentage points — amid fears the amendment’s language was too broad and would have allowed for marijuana use outside of strict medical necessity.
One nationwide law enforcement group says such measures should be even broader.
“We support medical marijuana in Florida, and we support the full legalization of marijuana,” said Joe Baldi, a retired police officer and spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in an interview.
The Maryland-based nonprofit consists of current and former police officers, prosecutors, judges, federal agents, customs and border patrol agents and corrections officers. It has 150,000 members and supporters across the country, according to its website.
LEAP, as the group is also known, wants illegal drugs legalized, regulated and controlled in order to reduce crime and other harmful consequences associated with the so-called “War on Drugs.” It sees medical marijuana as a first step in many states.
“It’s a radical approach for a radical problem,” said Baldi.
For over four decades, tough federal and state law enforcement policies have taken aim at reducing the production, distribution and consumption of illegal drugs. Citing federal statistics, LEAP contends that such efforts have failed: 39 million non-violent drug arrests over the past 40 years, a quadrupling of the prison population, and $70 billion a year spent combating drugs.
“Not one of the stated U.S. drug policy goals of lowering the incidence of crime, addiction, drug availability, or juvenile drug use has been achieved,” its website states.
LEAP does not advocate for the use or sale of drugs in any way, said Baldi. Its members believe that to lower crime and addiction, as well as to conserve tax dollars, legalization reform policies must be enacted.
The group asserts that simple drug use should not lead to incarceration, and that addiction is a health issue best dealt with by appropriate medical professionals — not police and corrections officers.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply possessing marijuana.
As a former patrol officer, Baldi primarily focused on drug crimes and participated in undercover drug operations. He says he saw the futility of locking up drug users and small-time marijuana offenders first hand.
“We can reduce crime by providing legal alternatives to getting drugs off the street,” he said. “Prohibition has made our streets less safe because cartels and criminals are fighting for their share of the drug trade. It’s a business.”
In November 2012, a state constitutional amendment vote led to the legalization of marijuana for adults in Colorado. The state reported 12,894 marijuana-related arrests that year. Two years later, marijuana-related arrests dropped to 7,004.
In the District of Columbia, arrests for possession of marijuana dropped from 1,842 to 32, a year after its policy change. Arrests for marijuana-related activities, including sales, dropped by 85 percent, according to the Washington Post.
Washington state also passed a voter approved amendment in 2012. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Washington has since collected $83 million in marijuana tax revenues, which, in part, have funded substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
Oregon and Alaska have also legalized it. LEAP is supporting similar efforts in Maine and California. Twenty-five states have legalized medical marijuana.
Conservatives haven’t turned a blind eye to reform.
GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said that although he doesn’t personally support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, he does support states that democratically pass legalization policies.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, is proud of his decriminalization efforts.
“After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade,” Perry told the Austin American-Statesman.
Florida is now the third largest state in the country and, like Texas, has a conservative governor and legislature. Statewide legalization isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but local governments across the state are enacting reform laws.
Tampa, South Florida, Volusia County and Orlando have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. The trend seems likely to continue as six out of 10 Republican millennials favor legalization, according to the Pew Research Center,
The ACLU found that drug enforcement efforts have led to black Americans being arrested four times more than white Americans for simple marijuana possession. The consequences are often life changing.
“Even for individuals who are never incarcerated, collateral consequences that flow from arrests and convictions — such as lost jobs, ineligibility for public housing, suspended driver’s licenses, and restrictions on access to federal student loans — can significantly derail lives,” the ACLU said.
LEAP says decriminalizing pot allows officers to focus on other crimes.
“Criminals selling dope on the street often have guns. So if you reduce the dope, you take the gun and the criminal with it. Police can then focus on other things, like violent crime,” Baldi said.
Eight polls over the past 18 months have shown support well above the 60 percent threshold needed to pass Florida’s medical marijuana amendment. The most recent poll from Gravis Marketing showed 69 percent approval.
Department of State campaign finance records indicate a sizable advantage for the amendment’s supporters. A political action committee called People United for Medical Marijuana has spent $3.7 million as of July 22.
The measure’s opponents, a coalition called Drug Free Florida, has spent only $246,000, although records show the group has raised $1.8 million.
“We don’t think Florida law enforcement should be put in a situation to arrest people for using marijuana if it’s medically beneficial to them,” said Baldi.
“As far as medical marijuana in Florida, it’s a start,” he said.