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Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, chairs the House Health and Human Services committee, which heard testimony Tuesday from an Oregon law enforcement officer about the negative impacts of marijuana legalization. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, chairs the House Health and Human Services committee, which heard testimony Tuesday from an Oregon law enforcement officer about the negative impacts of marijuana legalization. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (Steve Cannon/AP)

TALLAHASSEE ― Recreational marijuana has brought trouble to Oregon, a law officer said Tuesday, as Florida lawmakers prepared to deal with the chance that Sunshine State voters could legalize pot next year.

The House Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony from Chris Gibson, a narcotics officer in Oregon, where marijuana was legalized in 2015.

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He listed a litany of problems that followed, including an increase in positive drug tests in the workforce, legal marijuana being siphoned into the black markets of other states and a spike in the use of other, still illegal drugs.

Gibson stopped short of calling marijuana legalization a “gateway” to other drugs, as Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, suggested, but said, “we have seen reported drug use in Oregon increase across the board ... we’re seeing users that are using everything all together.”

The presentation was the latest in a string of speakers planned by committee chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

A Harvard medical school professor spoke of the medical dangers of marijuana last month, and Rodrigues says he plans to have other law enforcement officials from Colorado, another state where marijuana is legal.

Rodrigues says he wants lawmakers to be prepared in case one of the two proposed constitutional amendments gets on the ballot and wins approval by voters in 2020. Rodrigues is term-limited, but the Legislature would have to pass a bill setting up parameters for a newly legal marijuana industry, just as it has for medical marijuana.

Both legalization proposals face several hurdles before they could get onto the ballot. One has gathered about 52,000 petitions, according to state data, and the other has gathered about 93,000, far short of the 766,200 needed by Feb. 1. The Florida Supreme Court would also have to approve any ballot proposal, something that’s far from certain given the court’s staunchly conservative majority.

Gibson also cited overproduction in Oregon as a factor that’s led to legal marijuana being illegally exported to other states, including Florida. Positive workforce drug tests for marijuana in Oregon increased from 2 percent in 2012 to 4 percent in 2017, according to data presented by Gibson.

The presentation spooked some panel members, who fretted over the “normalization” that legal pot would bring to the use of other illegal drugs. They discounted the claims of some legalization supporters that marijuana use would lessen illicit use of prescription opioids to manage pain.

“I am really concerned about the perception of drugs being safe,” said Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns County. “Some people think this is going to be the answer, and it looks like it just raises the tolerance level.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who supports legalization, rejected such concerns and questioned the slew of speakers in the House.

“Are (Republicans) bringing in these folks to arm them with talking points against these ballot proposals?” Smith asked.

Rodrigues said he’s also wary of a potential “gray market” marijuana industry in Florida, where pot is legal in some forms and illegal in others, sowing confusion among the public and law enforcement.

Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, in the same classification as heroin. It is still outlawed at the federal level, although federal prosecutors haven’t cracked down on marijuana producers in states that have legalized it.

“If I had a magic wand, Congress would’ve acted on this one way or the other,” Rodrigues said, adding that Congress should allow states to conduct medical research on pot. “I would hope they would do that because the longer they delay the more states like Florida are kind of feeling our way through this.”

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But Smith countered that lawmakers don’t have to wait on voters. Bills he has filed to legalize marijuana haven’t received a hearing in recent years, but he’s preparing to file it again ahead of the 2020 legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.

“We can’t keep pointing to Congress and saying ‘well, they need to do their job’ before we do our job,” Smith said. "We can be proactive.''

[email protected] or (850) 222-5564

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