BROOKSVILLE - If Steve Zeledon had his way, marijuana would be legal for medical and recreational use.
But first things first, he said, and that's why the chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee is doing all he can to get people here to sign petitions to get a referendum on Florida's ballot in 2014 that would ask voters if they favor using marijuana for medical reasons.
"I know dozens of people, especially in my age group, who have had cancer or undergone chemotherapy and have been on the verge of death who have been rescued because of the fact that they went out and got this illegal drug," Zeledon said.
Democratic Executive Committee members have a table at the Spring Hill Farmers Market - part of their effort to get signatures.
Zeledon said some people are taken aback when they see a large picture of a marijuana leaf near the table. But once they delve into the issue, they readily sign the petitions, he said.
And support for medical marijuana crosses political party lines, he said.
But Zeledon says supporters of the ballot initiative are up against a tight clock. The state is requiring 683,189 signatures by Feb. 1.
People who wait until the last minute might be out of luck.
Hernando County Elections Supervisor Shirley Anderson said it takes 30 days or so to verify that signatures on the petition are valid before sending them along to the state.
As of Friday, Anderson said her office had checked 3,258 signatures and, of those, 2,704 were valid. The others were disqualified due to lack of information, incorrect data or a signee failing to register.
Anderson said her office does not have a petition and people would have to get them from the United For Care website at www.unitedforcare.org/
"If we get a big batch (of signatures) on Jan. 29, we are not going to be able to process a huge number in two days," Anderson said. "We need to get those signatures in as soon as possible."
Zeledon said he will keep fighting for the use of medical marijuana if the ballot drive fails.
It's too important for the thousands of people who need the drug to ease their pain or help in their recovery, he said.
Zeledon said, ideally, marijuana also should be legal for recreational use. People should be able to go into a store and buy a marijuana cigarette as easy as they can buy a bottle of whiskey, he said.
The state would tax marijuana and subject it to the same regulations as liquor. Buyers would have to be at least 18 years old, he said.
Zeledon said the continued criminalization of the drug is detrimental to youths.
"It is destroying the lives of a lot of our young people," Zeledon said. "A young person is caught with a joint in his pocket and he is put in jail. Once he gets out, his life is destroyed. He can lose his driving privileges. It makes it hard to get a scholarship. It becomes a black mark on his record."
He believes law enforcement officials want to keep the drug illegal to fill up jails and raise money.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said 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. "Unfortunately, it doesn't matter whether those drugs are always illegal, like marijuana or methamphetamine, or legally available through prescription, like Oxycodone. The devastation is the same if they become too accessible.
Nienhuis said there are other medications that soon could be available that would be an alternative to marijuana but would be safer and less abusive.
Leading efforts to get the issue on the 2014 ballot is a group called United For Care, which states on its website that, "doctors should have the freedom to recommend the treatment they deem appropriate for their patients - including medical marijuana."
The drug already is legal for medicinal purposes in 20 states and the District of Columbia, "and has been shown to be an effective treatment for the symptoms and side effects associated with HIV/AIDS, cancer, hepatitis C, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis and other neuromuscular disorders, glaucoma and chronic pain," the UFC said.
The Florida Department of Health, in a statement issued in April, said the United States Controlled Substance Act lists marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, and that marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in this country.
Also, the drug "lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision and has a high potential for abuse," according to the state agency. Possession of marijuana is a crime under federal law.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi continues to challenge the proposed ballot language, calling it misleading. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has joined with Bondi in opposing the ballot initiative.
Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, said there has been no discussion of the matter with her organization's advocacy or general affairs committee.
Often the state chamber will ask for local affiliates to join certain causes but this does not appear to be one of them, she said.