Editorial: The tiger's cage

THE GAINESVILLE SUN, Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith has taken a refreshingly constructive approach to a ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana in Florida.

Unlike some of his fellow sheriffs, who are stoking fears to try to defeat the measure, Smith is engaging proponents in an attempt to address his concerns.

He recently participated in a telephone meeting with a new group, Florida for Care, that is developing proposed regulations for medical marijuana if Amendment 2 passes in November.

"It is a group of professional people with well-educated, thought-out questions and answers," Smith told The Sun. "It addressed some of the concerns I had as a law enforcement officer. This group is not looking at this for a way for people to get high. They seriously look at this as a medical issue."

Smith's comments are in sharp contrast to the rhetoric coming from medical-marijuana opponents, led by the Florida Sheriffs Association. They have too often used scare tactics, such as arguing that the amendment will increase underage use of marijuana.

Opponents undercut their case with such claims. A new study by economists at three universities in the western U.S. found that the effects of medical marijuana on teen use are "small, consistently negative, and never statistically distinguishable from zero."

There are surely legitimate questions about medical marijuana, such as whether health risks outweigh benefits. Unfortunately, major research institutions such as the University of Florida have steered clear of studying medical marijuana due to concerns it could threaten their federal funding, as The Sun reported last week.

Opponents have raised other pertinent issues, such as whether the amendment's wording could lead to abuses. But the best way to address that issue would be helping draft regulations with Florida for Care, a group chaired by UF College of Law Dean Emeritus and former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills.

As Sheriff Smith told The Sun, state officials and law enforcement need to prepare a regulated system now instead of "trying to catch the tiger after it's out of the cage."

A recent poll found that nearly 90 percent of Florida voters support medical marijuana. Rather than telling the overwhelming majority of voters that they're wrong, Amendment 2 critics would better serve the public by helping get the regulations of how medical marijuana would be implemented right.

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