SEMINOLE — Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped Pinellas County struggle through the dark days of prescription drug "pill mills,'' when shady clinics doled out lethal opiates just for the asking.
State and local authorities finally cracked down, but Gualtieri now fears that legalizing medical marijuana would reopen those floodgates with a new drug of choice.
"We're going to be right back to the problems we just dealt with, with pill mills," he told an audience Thursday night at St. Petersburg College.
In Oregon, he said, just nine doctors certified 28,000 people as needing medical marijuana. At that rate, even a $200 exam would generate $5.6 million.
"We are going to see unscrupulous practitioners just trying to make a buck and see places pop up all over. Somebody can go in and say, 'Doc, I need a certification because my head hurts, or my neck hurts' and get an unlimited supply.''
Floridians will vote Nov. 4 on a constitutional amendment that would allow regulated dispensaries to sell pot for medical purposes. With polls indicating widespread support and politicians often dodging the topic, the Florida Sheriff's Association stands out as one of a few vocal opponents.
Gualtieri articulated the sheriffs' concerns during a panel discussion at the college's Seminole campus.
He thinks securing a medical marijuana card will be too easy under the amendment, where even headaches and menstrual cramps might justify an identification card. Also, smoked marijuana that gets people high is unnecessary, he said. Prescription medicines derived from pot are already available, or soon will be "without people sitting around the table on Saturday night smoking marijuana.''
United for Care, the organization that sponsored the amendment, was represented by campaign manager Ben Pollara. The amendment specifies that the pot would be for "debilitating conditions,'' not minor headaches, he said, and the Florida Supreme Court rejected the argument that the ballot language leaves the door wide open to any ailment.
Some sick people do not respond well to traditional medications, Pollara said. "If a doctor prescribes a course of treatment — whether it is yoga, multi-vitamins, dietary change or marijuana —people should be able to pursue that change without being treated like criminals."
The Sheriff's Association website outlines other law enforcement concerns — including a study by the Colorado Department of Transportation that found that fatal crashes with drivers testing positive for marijuana rose from 5 percent to 13 percent between 2006 and 2011, just as the state's medical marijuana program was expanding rapidly.
"Colorado is seeing legal and public safety issues with driving under the influence,'' Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said this week in an interview. "There is no reason to believe those problems won't follow here in Florida.''
It's much harder to prosecute marijuana-impaired drivers than drunken drivers, Nocco said. Roadside breath tests can detect alcohol's levels in the body and the law sets standards for when a driver is presumed to be impaired.
Detecting marijuana takes a blood test, which usually requires an arrest and transport to jail. There are no bright-line impairment standards to aid prosecution.
Nocco expressed sympathy for sick people but sees the marijuana vote mainly as a tool for recreational use. "I think the amendment is just pulling on people's heartstrings,'' he said.
The Colorado crash report is deceptive, Pollara said in an interview. Most of the drivers who had marijuana in their system also had alcohol, he said. Traces of marijuana can stay in the body for weeks after use. Finding more drivers with pot in their system does not mean they were impaired or caused the crash, he said.
The Sheriff's Association website says dispensaries in other states have been "magnets for crime."
A 2009 report by the California Sheriff's Association, for example, said "many violent crimes have been committed that can be traced to the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries,'' including armed robbery and murder.
Pollara noted a recently released study by University of Texas researchers found no relationship between medical marijuana laws and higher crime rates.