By Jacek Stramski
In a narrow 4-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court today held that a proposed ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in the state addressed a single subject, and that the amendment title and summary were not misleading. As a result, the initiative can be placed on the ballot. In re: Advisory Opinion to the Attorney General re: Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions (SC13-2006).
The ballot initiative was challenged by the Attorney General on the grounds that it addressed more than one subject matter and because the title and summary did not accurately represent the effect of the amendment. A summary of the Attorney General’s arguments against the legality of the proposed amendment is available at a previous FlascBlog article available here.
The Court began its opinion by pointing out that a proposed constitutional amendment is reviewed under a deferential standard; unless the proposal is “clearly and conclusively defective,” the Court will approve it.
The Court first examined the single-subject requirement of Art. XI, sec. 3, Fla. Const. The requirement provides that a proposed citizen amendment initiative must address only one subject. In other words, there must be a “logical and natural oneness of purpose” within a proposed amendment. Advisory Op. to Att’y Gen. re Amend. to Bar Gov’t from Treating People Differently Based on Race in Pub. Educ., 778 So. 2d 888, 891-2 (Fla. 2000) (quoting Fine v. Firestone, 448 So. 2d 984, 990 (Fla. 1984)). This requirement is in place to prevent logrolling in the initiative process, as well as to prevent one amendment from simultaneously changing the functions of multiple branches of government.
The Court concluded that the proposed amendment has such “a logical and natural oneness of purpose – namely, whether Floridians want a provision in the state constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, under Florida law.” (Op. at 11). The removal of penalties and liability for authorized medical marijuana was naturally connected to the amendment’s purpose, and the Department of Health’s role in regulating the use of medical marijuana was the sort of executive role that was properly assigned to an executive branch agency.
The Court turned next to the Attorney General’s arguments that the ballot title and summary were misleading. The Court rejected the contention that the amendment would permit the use of medical marijuana in limitless situations, and pointed out that a condition could only warrant medical marijuana if a physician certified that it was debilitating and that the benefits of the use of marijuana outweighed the health risks to the patient. The majority rejected the contention that allowing the use of medical marijuana for “certain medical conditions,” as the title provides, suggests that there is a discrete list of conditions that would qualify for a medical marijuana prescription. Citing Merriam-Wesbster and the Oxford English Dictionary, the Court pointed out that while “certain” can mean “fixed” or “settled,” “a primary dictionary definition of ‘certain’ is also ‘of a specific but unspecified character, quantity, or degree.’” A reasonable interpretation of the title and summary therefore supported the conclusion that the amendment was not limitless.
Finally, the Court rejected the contention that the immunity from legal liability for any physician who prescribed marijuana in a manner consistent with the amendment was unduly broad. The Court refused to read the immunity language in a manner that would undo established standards of medical practice, or otherwise interfere with the citizens’ right to access courts. The majority also did not interpret the ballot summary statement that the proposed amendment would not allow a violation of federal law as misleading.
Chief Justice Polston, and Justices Canady and Larbarga all authored dissenting opinions stating that they found the ballot title and summary to be misleading.