Will medical marijuana ever be legal in Florida? 

Don't hold your breath.

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is the law of the land in 13 states in the U.S., and there are efforts underway in four others to make it legal next year.

But contrary to great expectations, Florida will not be one of them.

Earlier this year, an activist named Kim Russell announced that she would lead a (pardon the expression) grass-roots effort to collect enough signatures to qualify the measure for the 2010 ballot.

But with less than two months to go before the state-imposed deadline, Russell and friends are nowhere near their goal. The Florida Division of Elections website lists only 240 valid signatures from the group People United For Medicinal Marijuana (PUFMM). Russell says in fact she has close to 30,000 valid signatures that she hasn't turned in yet, but even if those are legitimate, the total would still be woefully shy of the 676,811 needed by February 1 to get on the 2010 ballot.

But Russell isn't discouraged. She confesses to feeling some disappointment, saying she had anticipated major funding to help collect signatures this year. But she's already looking to getting the measure on the 2012 ballot.

Other medical marijuana activists in Florida sound incongruously optimistic as well, and give credit to Russell for singlehandedly deciding to reignite the moribund issue in the Sunshine State.

Irv Rosenfeld is a Fort Lauderdale stockbroker who has achieved a modicum of fame over the years as one of the few people in the country being provided marijuana by the federal government. Through a unique arrangement, he receives the drug from the feds' Mississippi marijuana farm (a program of the Food and Drug Administration) and uses it to relieve pain from a rare bone disorder.

He said he was hoping that PUFMM would be able to engender enough "good faith" among the various organizations that fund medical marijuana initiatives so that they'd provide financial backing for the collection of signatures.

But he's not naïve about the costs of winning passage in Florida.

"I crashed a Partnership for Drug Free America conference in '97 or '98," Rosenfeld said last week. "They told me if they had to spend $50 million to keep medical marijuana out of this state they would." But, he adds, "Times have changed. We have to muscle the support into votes, and it will be a slam dunk in 2012."

But the evidence doesn't indicate that. Bruce Mirken is with the Medical Marijuana Policy Project based in San Francisco. He says that organizers in several of the 13 states that have passed medicinal marijuana laws bypassed the initiative process and went through the legislatures.

"The initiative process is labor- and money-intensive," he says. "Having been a veteran of signature drives, it ain't easy." That's why he says his organization has looked for opportunities to go through state legislatures and have been successful there, but adds, "That's a struggle in its own way, because politicians are fearful of 30-second attack ads."

Jodi James is a member of the Florida Cannabis Action Network board of directors. She says the big-money people who could help fund such an initiative in Florida have called the state "onerous." Not only is the initiative process cumbersome, there are eight major media markets in the state; that means statewide campaigns generally require hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars to be competitive.

There were rumors in the early part of this decade that Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis and his better-known partner in such causes, financier and philanthropist George Soros, were considering spending money in Florida to get medical marijuana on the ballot. But those efforts never came to fruition. ("We were always accused of getting money from Soros," James says, adding, "Never the case.")

Well, what about the legislative front? There is actually a Democrat who supports such a law.

West Palm Beach's Mark Pafford was elected to the State House last year. He says he's already maxed out on the number of bills he's allowed to file for the next session, or else he would have included a bill to allow for medical marijuana in Florida. Pafford isn't a fan of the so-called war on drugs.

"I don't think we've looked at this in a mature way," the freshman lawmaker said last week of the state's stance on marijuana, though he could have been speaking about the country as a whole. "I will support making medical marijuana legal in this state," he says, "We need to be looking at decriminalizing marijuana."

If there was ever a serious attempt to get medical marijuana on the ballot or through the legislature, there would certainly be a serious campaign to stop it. And some of that ammunition could come from states like California where legislation has passed.

Recently, officials in Los Angeles sprang into action after learning that there may be as many as 1,000 such dispensaries in their metropolis. A manager at one dispensary told the Reuters news agency that "I'd say 1 percent of my clients have a genuine hospital note. The other 99 percent come from these doctors who set up offices to give marijuana prescriptions all day."

Supporters of medical marijuana in Florida say they're ready for such a debate. But unless something dramatic happens soon, don't expect it to become an issue to discuss anytime soon.

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