Clash over medical marijuana fires up in Florida

FLORIDA — Michael Derigo arrived home from a trip to the grocery store June 25 to find half a dozen police cars surrounding his mobile home in Gibsonton. A neighbor had complained about his marijuana plants.

Since he was diagnosed with AIDS in 2004 and started on drugs to suppress it, Derigo, 59, has grown marijuana plants and juiced the leaves to drink. Unlike smoking dried leaves, he said, it doesn’t get him high.

“I’ve been able to keep my weight on where I’ve seen others just shrivel up and die,” he said.

Derigo has pleaded not guilty to possessing and manufacturing marijuana. His lawyer, Michael Minardi of Stuart, who specializes in such cases, plans a medical necessity defense.

“The war on drugs is a war on the American people,” Derigo said. “People sometimes do less time for murder than for marijuana.”

Cases such as his have led to a new petition drive to put a proposal on the 2014 ballot to legalize medical use of marijuana in Florida.

Similar efforts have failed before, but this one is backed by a new level of legal and political muscle – mainly from trial lawyer John Morgan of the Morgan & Morgan firm, a major Democratic political fundraiser. With his help, the United for Care campaign group has crafted a ballot proposal and hired petition gatherers.

Asked how much he’s willing to spend, Morgan, who’s known for seven-figure contributions to charitable and political causes, said simply, “As much as it takes.”

He plans to start running radio ads later this year; newspaper stories on the proposal have already drawn scores of volunteers, he said.

But the proposal could face high-powered opposition, possibly involving Republican political fundraiser, shopping center magnate and former ambassador Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg.

Sembler and his wife, Betty, are the founders of the charitable Drug Free America Foundation and a related public education group, Save Our Society from Drugs, which can act in political causes.

Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America, said discussions are starting on legal and political strategies against the initiative, but she didn’t want to go into details.

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