Burning debate over marijuana in Florida

TAMPA - The future of marijuana laws in Florida and the United States was a topic that drew more than 200 people to the Fletcher Lounge at the University of Tampa featuring nationally known experts on both sides of the issue.

College students came interested in the recreational use of the drug, while some seniors wanted to know about medical marijuana.  Many students studying criminology were curious about how law enforcement will handle the new and controversial laws in Colorado and Washington legalizing the drug, despite a federal ban.  
"I know people who do drugs all the time," said Michelle Speaker, a UT student.  "I want to promote to students to tell them that it's not good for your health and it messes with your head," she said.

Speaker's sentiment was clearly the minority among most of the students who attended the forum.  Aaron Houston with Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, D.C. argued in favor of full legalization of pot.

"Really bad people make a whole lot of money from it," Houston said, referring to drug cartels south of the U.S. border.  "If we were to tax and regulate marijuana, like alcohol, we would control it better.  We would keep it out of kids' hands," he said.

Kevin Sabet from Project SAM, which stands for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, argued against legalization, saying it would only lead to more addictions.  Sabet contested the idea that marijuana needed to be legal for people to benefit from its effects.

"The issue is marijuana, just like opium, has medical value," Sabet said.  "The question is, do we smoke opium to get the effects of morphine?  No.  So why would we smoke marijuana to get its medical effects?" he asked.

A group of Tampa residents in favor of legal marijuana wore hats and t-shirts with a large cannabis logo.  The group, "Stoned Old Dudes," refuted the stereotype of the lazy pothead sitting around doing nothing.

"It's really not true," said George Lilly, a member of Stoned Old Dudes.  "I'm around successful people in this state that have built businesses, that pay taxes, doing everything they need to do," he said.

In the past, proposals to legalize marijuana in Florida have gone nowhere in the state's republican controlled legislature.  Houston said the party might want to follow the lead of Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate who supported full legalization of marijuana.

"Republicans might want to get out of the stone age," Houston said.  "It's a small government issue.  It's an issue that appeals to tea party voters," he said.

Sabet disagreed.  "I worry about the commercialization of marijuana," he said.  "We are learning the tragic effects of big tobacco every single day, where we have a half million people dying from tobacco.  That's not an accident," Sabet said.

"That's because there's an industry behind it.  There's an industry that thrives on addiction.  We need to make sure that doesn't happen with marijuana."

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