BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando County elections office received 10,694 valid signatures from people who want the question of medical marijuana availability on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Elections staffers had taken in 13,743 petitions, but had to disqualify 3,049 for lack of proper identification or other reasons.
The petition drive was broken into state districts, with Hernando County lumped with Citrus, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties in District 11. Hernando collected the most signatures in the district. Citrus County was second in the district with 6,407 signatures. Marion had 3,925, Sumter had 1,804 and Lake had 692.
The referendum allows the medical use of marijuana for people with debilitating diseases, as determined by a licensed doctor. If passed, caregivers would be able to prescribe marijuana to patients.
The Florida Department of Health would register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and would issue identification cards to patients and caregivers.
The state received enough signatures to get the question on the ballot. Backers had received 782,460 valid signatures and needed 683,149 by Feb. 1.
Elections Supervisor Shirley Anderson said she is not surprised at the large number of signatures received in Hernando County, given a tight time frame to meet a state deadline.
"(Supporters) hired people as well as utilized volunteers who worked to get the petitions signed," Anderson said.
Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan helped the cause in the days leading up to the deadline by spending large sums of money to push the petitions.
Still, Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Steve Zeledon said the high signature count took him aback.
"I was very, very surprised Zeledon said.
Zeledon and the local Democratic committee are supporting the medial marijuana initiative and he said the support is not only from younger people but from seniors and veterans.
Zeledon said people who are undergoing chemotherapy or who have such diseases as multiple sclerosis would benefit from smoking marijuana. For veterans suffering from traumatic stress disorder, now being given Oxycodone or similar strong drugs, it is crucial for this referendum to pass, Zeledon said.
Zeledon said he talked to many vets at a booth he set up to solicit signatures at the Spring Hill Farmers Market.
"These people said that pot solved their problem," he said. "The vets said it did an awful lot of good."
For a southern state, Zeledon said it seems as if the tide of opinion on marijuana is changing.
"I was proud of the fact that so many people stood up for their beliefs in Hernando County," he said.
Opponents of the referendum fear that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes will lead to abuse, the increased chances of qualified users sharing the drug with friends or family and increased traffic accidents due to impaired drivers.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis told Hernando Today he is opposed to legalizing marijuana, even for medical use.
"Emergency responders have seen, all too clearly, the effects of abuse-prone drugs on both individuals and our community," Nienhuis said in a prepared statement.
Nienhuis said there are other medications that could soon be available that would be an alternative to marijuana but would be safer and less abusive.