Both Dr. Jim Whitman and Larry Eger believe the question of medical marijuana is a public health issue. Both Whitman and Eger are Republicans, and both believe the appearance of a medical marijuana initiative on the upcoming November ballot is part of a hidden agenda: to get Democrat Charlie Crist elected as Florida governor.
But Whitman and Eger have different views about legalizing medical marijuana: Whitman, director of psychiatric services at the Manatee County Jail, believes it should remain illegal, while Eger, public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, favors legalization.
Whitman and Eger debated the issue at the Republican Club of Longboat Key’s March 14 meeting at the Longboat Key Club’s Harbourside Dining Room.
Whitman, a Longboat Key resident, told the audience that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized two chemical constituents of marijuana, THC and dronabinol, as having medicinal uses — not for pain, but for nausea and other side effects resulting from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Both of those chemicals are available in prescription form in Florida today, he said.
But the amendment specifies nine medical conditions for which a doctor can prescribe medical marijuana — plus “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
“That’s a very wide door that anyone can walk through,” Whitman said.
But Eger said that marijuana in pill form has not been shown to have the same effect as smoked marijuana. He compared his support of legalization to his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, saying he does not want the government to make decisions such as whether individuals are required to have health insurance.
“I stand on the principle that I don’t want the government telling physicians they can’t prescribe what he or she feels is appropriate,” Eger said.
Whitman, however, worries that marijuana use will rise dramatically if voters approve the amendment.
“It might not even be because it is prescribed but because it is diverted,” he said, citing examples from states that have legalized medical marijuana. “People sell it on the streets or give it away.”
Whitman argued that legalization could result in public health dangers, such as child neglect or driving under the influence. He sees the effects of substance abuse every day in jail, where at least 75% of his patients are referred to him for substance abuse.
But Eger countered that marijuana is already on the streets, and despite criminalization, use among individuals under 24 has gone up. By comparison, tobacco is legal for those 18 and up, but the government regulates its potency and advertising, and also taxes it. Tobacco use has fallen among individuals under 24, Eger said.
Eger described the effects of marijuana criminalization from a legal perspective.
“Lives are ruined, not because of abuse but because of arrest. People lose educational opportunities, scholarships, they’re saddled with arrest records,” he said. “These aren’t people who are drug addicts. We’re talking about our kids.”
A marijuana arrest in Sarasota County takes a deputy off the streets for three hours, he said — “money that would be much better spent in pursuit of crimes that profoundly impact public safety.” Eger argued that money for arresting people and sending them to prison for marijuana would be better spent on treatment, education and regulation.
Eger said he believes the placement of the proposed amendment on the upcoming ballot was “a Democratic ploy” but urged Republicans not to view medical marijuana as a party issue.
“I believe individual liberties are a value we all can support,” he said.
Whitman made a prediction about the initiative, which requires 60% approval to pass.
“It’s going to fail, but it’s going to get a majority,” he said. “That’s not going to stop them, and they’re going to have amendments every year until it passes.”
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