Drug abuse prevention advocates fear marijuana legalization

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BRADENTON - The push to make marijuana legal could appear on the ballot in 2014.  Advocates for legal marijuana have mastered the marketing – and gotten the money – to change people's perceptions of pot, and that leaves people who work against drug abuse struggling to blunt a rising tide in favor of blunts.

“I think the proponents of marijuana have been really brilliant at how they have framed marijuana,” says Sharon Kramer, Executive Director of the Manatee County Substance Abuse Coalition. Instead of potheads, they show you Cathy Jordan, the Parrish woman with Lou Gehrig's Disease who says that smoking pot has kept her alive.

And it has worked. 19 states plus the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical use, and two others – Washington State and Colorado – have approved use for anyone over 21. “It makes me sad, it makes me scared, again the perception of harm is going down,” says Jessica Spencer, who leads the Manatee County Youth Commission. She and Kramer see what they believe is a growing danger.

“We're going to suggest that smoking marijuana is medical?” Kramer asks. “I would suggest that it's a hoax.”

But a recent poll suggests that 70% of people in Florida support so-called medical marijuana." The Cathy Jordan bill went nowhere in the legislature this year. But a group backed by prominent attorney John Morgan aims to get the nearly 800,000 petition signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot.  And when voters see people like Cathy Jordan, Kramer says, it's hard for them to hear the facts.

“Less than five percent are using it for any medical condition like HIV/AIDS or cancer,” Kramer says. Yes, the state would make tax revenue from pot, but Kramer notes that the state makes money from alcohol and tobacco taxes, too, but it's only a tiny fraction of the cost to society in heath care, crime and substance abuse treatment.

Monday, Kramer, Spencer, and other drug abuse prevention specialists from across the region meet in St. Petersburg to look for ways to get their message out in the face of what they expect to be a big advertising campaign in favor of legalizing marijuana in Florida.