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Nancy Smith

Legislature About to Convene 'Year of the Vice'

February 26, 2014 - 6:00pm

Was it only 12 months ago Florida was banning bongs? My, what a difference a year makes.

Shift to 2014 and look at us now. It's party time! All of a sudden wicked is permitted, "sin" is in, vice is nice.

World Cup aside, Florida, we're already on the road to Rio. Or so it seems.

Starting next week the Florida Legislature will have a little something to appeal to the baser nature in us all -- from a dandy trio of gambling bills to Jack Daniels stacked in Wal-Mart an aisle away from the Barbie dolls; from beer offered in such fearsome packaging (64 fluid ounces), it's nicknamed after an angry bear, to a marijuana headache-cure hanging over legislators' heads just 60 percent of the November vote away.

All that vice.

No wonder HB 843 now looks like a walk in the park. As it should, too. This Matt Gaetz-Katie Edwards medical marijuana bill will relieve the suffering and prolong the lives of thousands of young people. Never mind the problematical constitutional amendment. HB 843 could open up worlds at the University of Florida -- immediately carve a new path of innovative research in medicine and agriculture.

Imagine if HB 843 presenters had attempted to float such an idea in last year's burn-the-bongs atmosphere. I picture FDLE raiders all over their apartments like ants on a doughnut looking for baggies, rocks, secret stashes of the demon weed. This year, on the other hand -- as if through magic -- the Legislature is awash in wizened conservatives, tears in their eyes, hope in their hearts, wanting to help the children of Florida.

Even Senate President Don Gaetz admitted this week, "My view has changed as a result of families whose stories I have listened to and whose stories are compelling," especially when other medical procedures and treatments do not provide effective results.

The real vices are so muscled-up this year their lobbyists are fighting each other for attention and respect.

Here's a press statement fired up and sent off by United for Care, the constitutional amendment authored by and for trial lawyer John Morgan and his Democratic candidate for governor, Charlie Crist. They say Tallahassee priorities are "warped," but theirs are reasonable because who can't trust doctors to decide what's right for their patients, right? Check it out:

"While they have consistently pushed to block medical marijuana to those that need it, Florida legislators have introduced a series of bills to make it even easier to buy alcohol in large quantities. One bill would expand the sale of hard liquor to grocery and convenience stores. Another would allow the sale of 128-ounce beer containers 128 ounces! Thats almost 11 cans of beer in a single container!

"And these are the same people who say that marijuana is too dangerous to be used with a doctors recommendation?What are they thinking? This failure in leadership is exactly why we had to put this on the ballot ourselves."

Actually, United for Care misfired on their indignation and got it wrong. The 128-ounce container, like the 32-ouncer, is already legal in Florida and has been for some time. It's the half-gallon "growler" -- the 64-ounce bottle -- that falls victim to Florida's history of odd bottle laws.

Then there's the 160-member Florida Independent Spirits Association(FISA) -- the folks who represent neighborhood package stores. Lots of years these folks might not get such a warm welcome. But in 2014 they've got church groups and teetotalers on their side. Why? Walmart.

Package stores sell booze, sure, but they operate from a separate store, away from unrelated consumer goods.Now Big Boxer Walmart's in town. It has a bill it wants passed and a legislator supporting it -- Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto. The Walmart bill would allow the sale of liquor inside the main store with everything else Walmart sells -- broccoli, T-shirts, toys, anywhere the store wants it displayed.

If the bill succeeds, it will mean a competition catastrophe for little guys in corner liquor stores -- both in price and convenience, although FISA denies that is its main concern ("Independent liquor stores already compete with Walmart and other similar retailers," the organization says. "Grocery stores, combined, currently operate over 400 liquor stores in Florida" each of them separated from the rest of the store by its own entrance).

Walmart isn't just the world's largest retailer, it's the world's largest company. It's already responsible for 30 percent of grocery sales in the United States.

Access to alcohol for minors is the kicker here. A package store clerk is schooled in busting fake IDs and keeping alcohol out of minors' hands; a Walmart clerk -- probably not.

Right now, when a minor enters a liquor store, theyre immediately noticed because everyone knows they have no business being there. In a big, busy store like Walmart, minors are everyday welcome customers, says Rory Eggers, president of FISA. If Walmart is allowed to put liquor in stores that also sell toys and video games, any minor will be tempted to handle, steal or even drink the liquor right there in the store.

Placing a bet at a fancy resort casino isn't the half of it this year. Vice chat is so happening. Is Florida as all-around-ready to loosen up as it appears? We'll find out a lot in the next two months.

Let the good times roll. Somebody at the Capitol should hand out hats and horns next Tuesday as lawmakers enter the building.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or 228-282-2423.

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