Monday, September 01, 2014

Florida Ballot Amendments 2014: So Few Yet So Important

Another election cycle here in Florida.  Another round of Florida state amendments on the ballot for 2014 for the voters to decide.

Unlike previous ballots like 2012 and 2010 and 2008, this year we've got only three amendments to consider.  Could make for the smallest ballot sheet in recent history.  Deal is, these three are some of the biggest issues to vote on I've seen in ages.

Amendment One: Land Acquisition Trust Fund

The wording on this makes it so Florida has "to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years."

What's at stake is funding for a state-founded land trust dedicated towards overall environmental management and protection.  Funding for that trust had been slashed back in 2009, and it seems the current legislature leadership isn't in the mood to find replacement revenues.

If you've never been to Florida, or just moved here, or if you've lived here for 20-40 years and just plain forgot, this state has a very fragile ecosystem and not a lot of room for growth.  Geographically, we're a mid-sized state but population has us as the fourth-most.  That means a lot of our limited resources are getting pulled in a lot of directions, above all our water.  Drinking water is important, as is our lawn maintenance and agricultural needs for water.  Not to mention our state's reliance on tourism with our impressive chain of beaches, rivers, lakes, and parks.  The risk of pollution to key waterways - especially the Everglades - is always high.

I don't buy what I've seen of the opposition's arguments: that this would force a constitutional solution to what normal legislation ought to handle, that it would cause an unbalanced budget, that it would kill job-creating funds.  On the first point, our current legislature hasn't been in any rush to resolve this matter, so we've got nowhere else to go to resolve it.  On the second, we have other ways of balancing the budget IF said legislature opened their fricking minds to the options available: besides, the Fiscal Impact committee that measures the cost benefits of all amendment proposals can't say if this will hurt or boost revenues.  On the third point, any time a Republican says anything will affect "job creators" I don't believe them, because their idea of "jobs creation" is "more money to the rich".

The overall purpose of this amendment is to protect our state's environment and conserve our resources in a way to ensure ourselves and future generations can LIVE HERE.  With regards to Amendment One, I vote YES.

Amendment Two: Medical Marijuana

This one is the doozy, the headache.  The major bout on the general election card this November (in some ways it's a bigger fight than the hotly contested Governor's race between Crist and Scott).  Just arguing over any kind of decriminalization of a drug... this can get messy.  So I'd like to start off simple.

This amendment sets out to allow "the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not authorize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana."

What this means: marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes for individuals suffering in such a way that only marijuana's effects - usually pain-killing, appetite stimulus, and specific treatment for illnesses like glaucoma - can help them.  The use can only be signed off by licensed state doctors and caregivers (people who can lose such licenses if they're careless or law-breaking).  Treatment and distribution centers have to register and get managed by a state's oversight office, the Department of Health.  The amendment spells out that federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a major - Class I - narcotic, cannot be violated.  That means recreational possession or use of marijuana is a no-no.

Florida isn't the first state to pursue a medical marijuana protocol: both Colorado and Washington are the more recent states that have even legalized the manufacture and sale of marijuana (in Colorado's case even for recreational use).  There are 17 other states with some level of medical marijuana rights, or a decriminalization of pot use to where those arrested aren't jailed for it (they're fined and/or sent to outpatient treatment).  For what it's worth, the decriminalization efforts in other nations - Portugal for example - demonstrates that decriminalization does not lead to massive drug abuse (most drug abuse dropped in fact).

I do admit this amendment is a slippery slope towards an overall decriminalization of marijuana: if effective in showing the use of pot as a medicinal herb, the next argument is obviously how pot is "safe" as a recreational drug.  This is where the debate get worse.  Because there are a lot of people who fear the potential spread and abuse of marijuana as a recreational drug.  Because the keystone of our nation's massive War On Drugs has been a fight against marijuana use across the board, medicinal or otherwise.

Here's the thing: the War On Drugs has been a disaster.  The government is spending billions every year towards fighting it, it's led to the militarization of our police force to abusive levels, and it's led to the packing of our prison system at the state and federal level with a ton of non-violent drug offenders at a human cost of making them more hardened criminals.

It's been forty-plus years of the official start of the War On Drugs and the amount of drug abuse has not abated.  There is an aspect of human behavior we're just not going to be able to overcome with draconian policing and arrests.  The sad thing is that we've seen this all before: we called it Prohibition.

We tried policing human behavior under the good intentions of ending rampant alcoholism, which was viewed as a blight upon society.  The temperance movement in the United States got to be pretty powerful, and during an era of major social and political reform got the 18th Amendment - basically banning all alcohol - passed by 1920.  Rather than end the consumption of beer, whiskey, and other alcoholic drinks, all this did was drive the manufacture and consumption of alcohol underground, into speakeasies and gambling dens and criminal hideouts (and into country clubs, people's homes, other places where social types gather).  Criminal gangs that lived on the edge of society suddenly ran a profitable black market industry that boosted their financial and political clout.  Street wars erupted between these gangs.  The courts were flooded with Prohibition-related cases that clogged up our legal system for years.  Corruption became rampant.  In less than 14 years, we had to pass the 21st Amendment - and if you understand how hard it is to amend the U.S. Constitution, you'll understand how serious a problem this was - to repeal the 18th - we've never repealed an amendment since - just to do something to combat the violence and corruption.

Since then, our nation's fight against alcohol abuse has been more restrained and focused.  We go after direct risks such as Driving Under the Influence of alcohol (since drunk driving is a severe risk to everyone on the streets).  We place chronic drinking addicts into probationary counseling services - rehab clinics and group therapy - rather than jail.  We teach our kids in schools about the dangers of alcohol, and we have laws banning the sale or sharing of alcoholic beverages to the underage.  It's not perfect - we still have alcoholics, and we always will - but it's a good-faith effort, and it's more an effort to treat and save rather than jail and punish.

Instead of treating drug abuse as a crime, we ought to be treating it as a medical/health care issue.  We ought to focus more energy and funding into treatment and counseling, which have been effective means.  We ought to treat the overuse of drugs the way we treat alcohol addiction: as a medical problem, not a crime.

I'm not a drug user.  I don't use marijuana (although I've known people who have).  I don't smoke nicotine cigarettes (which is more lethal than marijuana yet regulated by the feds).  I don't drink any alcohol, not even wine (again, in excess alcohol can be lethal, yet is still regulated by the feds).  I don't want to see any substance abuse of any kind for kids under 18 (in alcohol's case, the age limit is 21).  These are personal preferences for me.  Yet I don't see the severe harm of marijuana.  The death rate from pot overdose is non-existent: the amount of ingested THC (the chemical that makes marijuana the weed we know today) needed to overdose is thousands of times higher than the regular rate of ingestion.  Nearly every pot smoker just smokes one a day: it would take 20,000 of those rolls in one sitting to kill one smoker.  Even pot brownies - arguably more potent - doesn't have enough THC in it to cause death (diabetes, though...)

I honestly don't see why pot is viewed as a Class I danger drug up there with heroin, which is deadly (along with cocaine and oxy, both of which deserve to be Class I but aren't): if anything marijuana ought to be classified a Class III alongside the synthetic THC drug Marinol.

I'll grant you one thing: The most severe problem with marijuana is psychological, the impact it has on the brain.  It can induce depression and cause memory loss, and it can adversely hinder kids' development during their growth into adulthood.  Any artificial drug/stimulant is going to have its' negative effects.  Alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver and affect depressive mood swings.  Alcohol in excess also causes violent mood swings that lead to a lot of other deaths (if anything, marijuana users tend not to trash the bar while high).  Smoking nicotine kills the lungs, causes cancer, and has been a major burden to our health care system.  Yet we regulate those drugs as best as possible to prevent kid and teen abuse: we regulate their sale and manufacture to try and reduce the health risks.  We can do the same with marijuana.

And that's not even getting into the legalization of industrial hemp, a cousin to the marijuana plant that's also been banned because of its' tenuous relationship (even though hemp barely contains any THC worth bothering).  At least our national government is making some sensible strides there.

For all these reasons - above all that this amendment is one more steps towards ending a War On Drugs we've already lost and that we can start treating marijuana use in a sensible productive fashion - I am going to vote YES on Amendment Two.

Amendment Three: Judicial Vacancies

This is the legislative-induced amendment proposal allowing the governor to set nominations for judicial vacancies, based off of a nominating committee list of no less than three names and no more than six.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?

Hidden in this amendment is the change making it possible for a current sitting governor to nominate a candidate for a judicial vacancy before that vacancy even happens (the "prospective" part of the amendment's wording).

Say Rick "No Ethics" Scott is still the sitting governor if this amendment passes.  And he's there in office 2015 and he's looking at the State Supreme Court and sees there's three judges facing mandatory retirement in 2019, four years away and during the tenure of the next possible governor (due to term limits, Scott can't run for 2019).  Scott can use the power granted by this proposed amendment to nominate in 2015 three people to fill those eventual vacancies in 2019 even though those judges are still sitting there doing their jobs.  Worse, these nominations can't be overturned or blocked by the next governor, who would want to have the right and authority to nominate his/her own candidates for the office.  In fact, all seven seats on the Florida court can have their "vacancies" filled by a governor who'll be long gone from office by the time all of them are retired out (voluntary or not).

To call this "rigging" or packing a court is an understatement.  This amendment can easily grant a governor who'll be long gone from office the power to put people on any judicial seat without repercussion or any input from the future governor(s), even twenty years down the line.  It denies future voters the power to vote into office a governor that can represent their interests in handling of legal matters relevant to the state in those future times: we'd be stuck with a judge nominated ten or fifteen years ago whose political bias - and yes this is a thing to worry about - won't reflect the current mood or needs.  It doesn't matter if this is a power that can go to governors like Lawton Chiles or even Reubin Askew (arguably the greatest, most honest governor the state of Florida ever had): this is a power that can be abused without limit and can create long-standing animosity and acts of retaliation that would cause decades of legal chaos.

This would be like nominating a replacement Library Director for Broward County Libraries, even though that county system just hired a director and isn't due to retire for another 27 years or so.  In the meantime for those 27 years of waiting, the library system can easily change services, require different resources, respond to new needs for the public that calls for a new brand of leadership that the replacement Director just isn't suited to fill.  This denies the library system the chance to hire at the moment of need the best possible candidate, someone who is versed in that future: instead they're stuck with a rigid, outdated Director more than likely to pursue goals and agendas no longer relevant nor working.

This smacks of Rick Scott and his buddies in the state legislature looking to pack the courts with their pro-corporate, anti-government cronies as soon as possible: the potential shifts in population - even in aging old Florida - is making the Sunshine State more Democrat/Blue by 2020, when even gerrymandering can't save the conservative wingnuts.  Fearing the future, they're hoping to use whatever power they have in the present to rig the game their way for the foreseeable future.  This is an amendment that needs to go down in flames.  For the Love of God, VOTE NO on Amendment Three this year.

And, just one more thing: GET THE DAMN VOTE OUT PEOPLE.  And for the LOVE OF GOD, please vote for Charlie Crist as Governor... get Rick "He's a Goddamn FRAUD" Scott out of office RIGHT NOW.

I thank you.  Stay focused this November, people.

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