By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Jan 24 (Reuters) - A petition drive to allow medical use of marijuana by patients with a debilitating disease cleared a major hurdle on Friday, surpassing the number of signatures needed for a spot on Florida's election ballot.
The issue is still pending before the state Supreme Court, which has until April 1 to determine whether the ballot language meets state standards.
If the petition is approved by 60 percent of voters in November, Florida would become the first southern U.S. state, joining 20 other states in approving marijuana for medical use.
A Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey late last year showed 82 percent public support for the amendment, if it gets on the ballot. A constitutional amendment in Florida requires 60 percent voter approval for adoption.
The state Division of Elections recorded on Friday that petition signatures of 710,508 Florida voters had been certified by county elections supervisors. The initiative also crossed the minimum signature threshold in at least 14 congressional districts, as required by law.
People United for Medical Marijuana, the campaign committee behind the United for Care petition drive, announced Friday it had met the February 1 deadline for certifying at least 683,149 voter signatures.
Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, said more than 1.1 million signatures were submitted to county elections supervisors. A rejection rate of about 20 percent is anticipated, due to non-voters signing petitions or some people signing twice.
"This is an amazing feat. I have to admit, less than a year ago I never thought we'd see this day," Pollara wrote in a message to volunteers and donors.
The Supreme Court heard arguments December 5 on a petition by Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office contended that the petition language does not comply with legal requirements. Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott opposes the ballot initiative, as do the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Sheriff's Association.
Legal briefs by Bondi and other opponents said the ballot language misleads voters by implying state law can supersede federal marijuana statutes, and that the measure is so broad that the drug could be prescribed for virtually any minor medical condition.
Former University of Florida law school dean Jon Mills argued, however, that the amendment is tightly drawn so that only licensed physicians could prescribe medical pot, and only for debilitating diseases.
United for Care argued in court that the amendment clearly sets forth its intention and that physicians would not be allowed to prescribe pot for frivolous health complaints.
Pollara estimated the November ballot campaign will cost up to $10 million, on top of $3 million already spent by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who paid much of the cost of volunteers circulating petitions and the 10-cents-a-name certification fee.
Pollara estimated 6 million to 7 million voters will turn out in Florida's November election. "We've been in signature mode for the last few months," he said, "but we're now forming our general election budget plan. It won't be cheap." (Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)