Florida Supreme Court hears arguments in campaign to place pot decriminalization on state ballot

    marijuana plant
    Marijuana plant

    Sponsors of a citizen’s initiative that could legalize adult use of recreational marijuana in Florida are contesting claims that the proposed amendment conflicts with federal law and that the ballot summary is misleading.

    On Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a virtual courtroom, because of COVID-19 precautions, with state officials trying to block the amendment.

    The sponsor of the amendment, Make It Legal Florida, argued the ballot summary is totally clear and that the court does not require dissemination to voters of information regarding federal laws.

    “I think our summary accurately describes the changes it can make to Florida law,” said George Levesque, the sponsor’s attorney.

    “The amendment itself is limited to only amending the Florida Constitution,” he added.

    “It’s at least putting them on notice that they will have to do a little research,” Levesque said. “The proposed amendment strictly complies with Florida statutes. … Florida is no longer going to criminalize the adult use of marijuana.”

    Levesque said the first sentence in the ballot summary explains the “chief purpose” of the amendment: “Permits adults 21 years or older to possess, use, purchase, display, and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and marijuana accessories for personal use for any reason.”

    In court to oppose the amendment were attorneys representing Attorney General Ashley Moody, the Florida Senate, and the Drug Free American Foundation.

    Solicitor general Amit Agarwal argued that the ballot summary is misleading, adding that “voters should be told the truth.”

    Other opponents of the amendment warned that voters might be led to think they’d be immune to federal prosecution.

    “The citizens cannot amend their constitution in a way that defies the U.S. Constitution,” said Jeremiah Hawkes, counsel for the Florida Senate.

    A new law — signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April — places stricter guidelines on the citizen’s initiative process, including an increase in the number of signatures need to win a ballot spot. The law also requires Florida Supreme Court to offer “an opinion on the amendment’s facially validity under the United States Constitution.”

    “We still meet that threshold — we have over half a million approved verified petitions,” Nick Hansen, chairman of Make It Legal Florida, said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

    “We feel very confident that they [Florida Supreme Court] will not side with the opponents on that point.”

    In a previous Phoenix story, Hansen said his group seeks a spot on the 2022 ballot. “The narrow timeframe to submit and verify those signatures has prompted our committee to shift focus to now gain ballot access in 2022,” he said at the time.

    Issac Morgan
    Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.