Slow Going in the Sunshine State

Fighting for Reform in Florida: Catherine Jordan, president, FL Cannabis Action Network

By Mary Lou Smart © 2012 www.medicalcannabisart.com

Cannabis makes Catherine Jordan cough,  and  she loves that. To get going each morning, she smokes two joints with two cups of steaming hot coffee. She smokes throughout the day to

keep her mouth dry. For 26 years, she’s suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She does not need a breathing tube, and she’s outlived the majority of amyotrophic lateral sclero- sis (ALS) patients by a good 20 years. It is estimated that only 10 percent of ALS patients survive 10 years after diagnosis. She credits her remarkable longevity to cannabis.

In 1989, Jordan visited a friend in Florida, mainly to say goodbye. Having received her diagnosis almost three years before, she could feel her body deteriorating. ALS is a rapidly progressive motor neuron disease characterized by the degeneration and ultimate failure of nerves that control voluntary muscles. As muscles, dependant on communication from the dying and dead nerves, fail, patients are no longer able to do things like  cough, sneeze, or even breathe. Many drown in their own saliva. Cannabis helps to dry the saliva in Jordan’s mouth. She feels blessed to be able to cough, and she loves her morn- ing tokes.

There is no known cure for ALS. Conventional treatment in the 1980s included pharmaceuticals for depression, pain, loss of appetite and muscle spasms. Today, the only Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-approved prescrip- tion medication is Riluzole, which has been shown to  have some success in delaying by a few months the need for a breathing tube and final respiratory failure.

At the time she visited Florida 23 years ago, she was a resident of Washington, and a fan of Dr. Kerkorian, the deceased euthanasia advocate nick-

named Doctor of Death who ultimately went to jail for helping many with ALS commit suicide. She admits that she was saving all of her prescription muscle relaxants, planning to kill herself when her own condition became unbearable.

ALS lays waste to muscles while the mind remains intact. Renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking also suffers from ALS, and is also one of the rare, long-term patients. Jordan, a petite woman with sparkling eyes and  a quick wit, is surprisingly upbeat.

Sitting on a beach in Bradendon, Florida, all those years ago, she decided to partake when one of her friends passed her a joint, and suggested that a hit of the local variety, Myakka Gold, might soothe her nerves. “My neurologist told me not to smoke anything back when I was diagnosed,” she said. “He said that I would  need  all of my lung capacity for the end, and that every day it would be harder and harder to breathe. I had listened to him and not smoked anything for the first three years, but the disease was devastating my body. I figured, what’s it going to do, kill me?”

She took a few hits and went back home where she dis- covered that her appetite had returned. Shortly thereafter,

she felt her disease stop. Other ALS patients have report- ed the same phenomenon. In a number of animal studies, and in anecdotal evidence, cannabis has been shown to slow progression of the disease. Jordan continued smok- ing cannabis. She remained in Florida, where she became an advocate for reform. As president of Florida Cannabis Action Network (FL CAN), she has overseen numerous petition drives and initiatives for legislative action. FL CAN’s mission is to promote public support for sensible cannabis policies. FL CAN’s press releases, petitions for legislative action and requests for donations can be viewed on www.FLDecides.org.

River of Grass

Floridians can be a scrappy and industrious bunch, and arrest figures prominently in a state with no medical mar- ijuana program and some of the strictest drug laws in the country.

In the early 1980s, Don Clark, a successful sod and watermelon farmer in Manatee County, supplied folks with the Myakka Gold that  slowed  the rapid  onslaught  of Catherine Jordan’s ALS.  He  was  caught,  convicted, and sentenced to house arrest. He served his sentence, but was later caught with a hunting rifle, a probation viola- tion, and sent to jail. Once again, he served his time.

The beautiful Myakka River stretches 57 miles through wetlands, prairies, woodlands and swamps. Have you  ever experienced the hell of trying to find your way out  of a mangrove swamp in a kayak, or, even  worse,  on  foot? Everything looks the same and it is easy to get lost. Watch out for poisonous snakes and man-eating alliga- tors! The only war ever lost to the U.S.  Army  on American soil was during the Seminole Wars, which stretched from 1814 to 1858. The winning strategy for the Native American Indians was to hunker down in the swamp and refuse to come out. To this day the Seminoles are proud of this feat, and refer to themselves as The

Unconquered. For the exact same reason, far from the beaten path, swamps are a fantastic place to grow marijuana. It takes a special person to want to poke around in muggy, bug- infested back waters. For a time, Myakka Gold was the largest cash crop to be found in swamps stretching for miles, clear down to the Everglades.

While Clark was paying his debt to society, what he referred to as “Myakky Wacky” was still quite popular. Lots of people, including his son, were growing it. Lots more people, including Cathy Jordan, were smoking it.

Even though Clark was known to have been out of the business, he was subsequently charged with conspiracy and accused of master-minding the education of an entire community of growers and dealers. When the next round of charges came down the pipeline, he maintained that he was not responsible for what everyone else had been growing and selling while he was doing his time. He refused to plead guilty and accept a plea. For standing his ground, he was sentenced to life in federal prison without chance of parole. He’d served 10 years of his sentence, some with his own son in his cell, when, in the last hours of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s time  in office,  he was one of 176 pardoned.

The ambitious conspiracy charge, which calculated that this man who had been out of the business for years was responsible for every seedling grown in Manatee County

— one million plants! — during the 1980s, received con- siderable attention. Among many pushing for his release, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, lobbied the  White House on behalf of Clark.

The Senior Tour

Few are fortunate enough to receive a pardon from the President of the United States. Robert Platshorn served 30 years, a mandatory minimum sentence, for smuggling a great deal of marijuana into Florida, at one point run- ning his operation from the tony digs of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami.

Square grouper, the term given to a bale of pot that occasionally floats ashore fol- lowing unpleasant encounters with the law and other unwanted visitors, is the name of at least two restau- rants in South Florida. It is also the name of a 2011 doc- umentary,     Square   Grouper:

The  Godfathers  of  Ganja,

which chronicles Miami’s pot smuggling    culture    in   the
1970s and 1980s, and includes the story of Robert Platshorn and his Black Tuna Gang.

A former pitch man for all types of products, Platshorn is a top-notch speaker. After his release in 2008, he decided to go back to work. This time around, he chose the field of education. Understanding all too well that the senior citizens raised on lies about marijuana are now living with

aches and pains that can be easily relieved with gentle remedies, he launched The Silver Tour. Entertaining and educational, the road show was initially aimed at senior centers and synagogues up and down Florida’s east coast. Speakers — politicians, advocates, and patients — bring audiences up to speed on the therapeutic aspects of the plant, the lunacy of the federal government’s Prohibition, and statewide reform efforts.

In addition to The Silver Tour, Platshorn raised enough money to fund billboards advocating the rescheduling of medical marijuana. He has written a book, Black Tuna Diaries and raised money for an infomercial, “Should Grandma Smoke Pot?” The Silver Tour’s website, www.silvertour.org, is cram packed with videos aimed at increasing awareness. A spokesperson for reform, he is also the South Florida director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). For his efforts, he is generating a great deal of press in local and national media outlets.

No surprise, but the federal government is hot on Platshorn’s trail. A new parole officer threatened to revoke his parole when he mentioned in an interview that he had used cannabis oil to treat skin cancer. Considerable evi- dence exists documenting that cannabis oil is effective in treating some forms of skin cancer, which does occur in

Robert Platshorn Silver Tour on stage

high numbers in the Sunshine State. Unfortunately, however, Platshorn was drawing considerable attention

to himself with The Silver Tour and the billboards, and admitting to using a Schedule I drug in a state with dra- conian drug laws gave the zealous parole officer reason enough to request many drug tests and threaten to send him back to jail. Because of conditions of his parole, he is no longer allowed to travel. He was earning money selling his books at out-of-state conventions, is almost broke fol- lowing 30 years in jail, and the no-travel condition is a financial hardship.

Although his pitch for medical marijuana might have been muddied with all of the media attention, the law enforce- ment attention, and the merchandising, Platshorn, 70, is right on with his target audience. One aspect of Florida’s story never changes; many move to the Sunshine State to run out the clock. In the 1950s and 60s, Florida was mar- keted as the world’s greatest retirement destination, and the campaign paid off. The weather is pleasant and there  is no income tax. Many visit on vacation, return, buy a winter home, and eventually retire in this place that many refer to as God’s Waiting Room. As the seniors who grew up believing the lies of Prohibition die off, a new genera- tion of retirees is stepping forward. Many have either smoked marijuana or have tried it at some point, and are well aware that it is not some evil scourge. Many Baby Boomer seniors have been smoking pot for most of their adult lives, and favor full-out legalization.

Opening Doors in Tallahassee

In Florida, cannabis reform is a ways off. What seems to be a whisper campaign is making its way to Tallahassee, the state’s capital, but whether the Governor will listen is anyone’s guess.

Governor Rick Scott, a Republican,  is  not  known  for drug reform initiatives that would translate into compas- sionate care. He is mostly known for leaving the compa- ny he co-founded and ran, Columbia/HCA, with a sub- stantial fortune that included a $9.88 million settlement and 10 million shares worth $350 million at the time of his hasty departure, just before same company was slapped  with  the largest  Medicare  fraud  fine  in history,

$600 million, which would eventually morph to more  than $1.5 billion with fines and repayments. Although he was never accused of any wrong doing, Columbia/HCA’s board forced him to resign as chief executive, and then it pleaded guilty to 14 felonies. Scott then decided to try his luck in the realm of politics. He bought his way into Tallahassee with more than $70 million of his own nest egg, garnered from the company caught red-handed bilk- ing Medicare, and, in effect, American  taxpayers.  In office, he immediately established historically-low approval ratings with moves such as trying to drug test anyone with a pulse, and backing anti-democratic voter suppression legislation in hopes of putting his candidate, Mitt  Romney,   into  the  White  House.  In  July,   when the

U.S.  Supreme  Court  upheld  the  constitutionality  of  the

Affordable Care Act, Scott promptly announced that Florida would not implement certain provisions of the law that would help to bring health care, and millions of dollars in federal funds, to the state’s neediest.

While a medical cannabis program appears to be a long shot, even Republicans have looked at the issue. In 2011,   a survey by Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates found support for legalizing medical mari- juana with 57 percent in favor, and 38 percent  opposed, as reported in Broward Palm Beach New Times. With a constitutional amendment, 60 percent approval is neces- sary to win. Forty percent plus 1 can kill a ballot measure, and so the no votes are still way ahead.

One way to put an initiative on the ballot is by petition, but at least 700,000 signatures are needed. Making the process even more onerous, a certain percentage of the petition’s signatures must come from each of the state’s 13 congressional districts.

For years, Floridians for Medical Rights circulated a peti- tion in favor of a constitutional amendment for medical cannabis. Another group, People United For Medical Marijuana, (PUFMM), has meet-ups around the state that are announced on its Facebook site to get signatures on its petition, which has been circulating since 2009. The peti- tion was short more than 675,000 signatures by

December, 2011, according to Broward Palm Beach New Times.

“It is difficult and costly,” said Jodi James, executive direc- tor, FL CAN. “If you pay  anyone  to  gather  signatures,  then you also have to pay to have the signatures verified, which can be as much as $1 apiece. So you are talking about $2 million before you’ve even gotten on the ballot.”

While conditions for initiating discussion are emerging, outside lobby groups are not yet willing to commit the substantial funding necessary for a successful legislative effort.

“I think that Florida will probably be in the latter wave of states that end up changing their laws,” said Robert Capecchi, legislative analyst with Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. “One of the reasons being is that a lot of the voting public is comprised of senior citi- zens, and they typically tend to have the least amount of support for changing marijuana laws, if only because they were raised in an age and time where out-right lies ruled. Again, I would not go so far as to say that nothing

is ever going to happen in Florida. At some point you will see serious movement.”

State Representative Jeff Clemens, now a state senator, introduced two House bills over two consecutive years in an attempt to get medical marijuana on the ballot. In the last session, a bill was also introduced in the state Senate by Miami Senator Larcenia Bullard. Neither bill was cho- sen to be heard by any committee. Given the large con- servative Republican majorities in both forums, and the requirement that a three-quarters vote in both houses would be needed to allow a public referendum, the moves were viewed as a step in the right direction, but most like- ly doomed from the get-go. In Florida’s 2011- 2012 leg- islative session, drug testing and purging the polls of Democrats trumped compassionate care.

Bullard, a Democrat who retired after the past session, has said that she introduced her Senate bill after reading about medical marijuana, listening to constituents and realizing that it was the right thing to do. While introduc- ing his first House bill, Clemens, also a Democrat,  said that he came to his position, radical in Tallahassee, after listening to his constituents. He said that he’d never smoked marijuana, and does not drink alcohol. He decid- ed that supporting an inexpensive, non-toxic and gentle form of therapy makes good sense. About medical cannabis he said, “Seven people die from prescription pain medicine in Florida every day. No one ever died from using cannabis. I’ve met people who were living  with really difficult pain. It doesn’t make good ethical or medical sense to deny it.”

There are those that have not given up on Governor Scott as a possible change agent. The man is a U.S. Navy vet- eran, after all, and the state is filled with veterans, many of whom support medical cannabis for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PDSD). In July, Jordan  and others from FL CAN visited his office to meet with

representatives from the Office of Budget and  Policy. They were asked to return for discussions with representa- tives from the Department of Health. Jordan said that she was very encouraged by the warm reception.

“FL CAN is well positioned to do good work with the leg- islature in 2013,” said James.

NORML Legal Counsel Keith Stroup is not holding his breath for Florida’s Republican legislature to embrace compassionate care anytime soon. “I don’t think Florida is even close,” he said. “They have just barely begun to intro- duce bills. This really is like the federal bills that we intro- duce every year in Congress. The fact is that as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, we can- not get a hearing. If you cannot even get a committee hear- ing, you sure as hell cannot get a bill out of committee.”

Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970 and has been fighting for reform or outright repeal of marijuana laws for decades, is encouraged by advocacy efforts that are opening doors in Tallahassee. “I really do admire and respect Cathy Jordan for her persistence and courage. She is not someone who is in this movement for the money. She understands that this is a political issue.”

Good news! In August, Clemens, whose Palm Beach County House seat was eliminated with redistricting, was the winner in a nail biter of a tough but success- ful campaign in the new district and is now a state senator. When his first bill he went unheard, then- Representative Clemens was not surprised. He said that he’d sponsor additional bills in future sessions. “When you try something brand new that has  this  kind of stigma, it’s going to take some time to change hearts and minds,” he said. “This is the beginning of the discussion. It’s an issue that was lying under the surface that no one was willing to talk about.”


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