Florida clears key hurdle to 'medical marijuana'

MIAMI (AFP) - Organisers in Florida have collected enough signatures to put a measure on legalising medical marijuana to a vote.

Advocates seeking to legalise pot for medicinal purposes in Florida said they exceeded the 683,149 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot by almost 40,000. They now must await a ruling from the state Supreme Court on the legality and the wording of the measure, which is being challenged by state officials.

"We're thrilled that we got the signatures we needed to get on the ballot," said Mr Ben Pollara, campaign manager of People United for Medical Marijuana.

"We're thrilled at the prospect of making history in Florida and helping Floridians decide compassionate care laws," added Mr Pollara, who said a total of 722,416 signatures were collected across the state ahead of Friday's deadline.

Republican Governor Rick Scott and conservative politicians in the state have vowed to fight the measure, which voters will have the chance to weigh in on in the Nov 4 election.

The issue of recreational and medical cannabis use is controversial in the United States, where opponents fear criminality tied to drug abuse and addiction, and say pot use could lead to dependence on harder drugs. US public opinion on the matter has been changing quickly, however.

President Barack Obama in an interview published last week said he believes smoking pot is no more dangerous than drinking, although he still considers it a "bad idea". Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will authorise the medical use of marijuana, making his one of nearly two dozen US states to do so.

California in 1996 became the first state to legalise medical marijuana. Meanwhile, Colorado has gone one step further, allowing adults in the state beginning this month to buy small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The state of Washington took a similar measure, set to take effect in the coming months.

According to an October 2013 Gallup poll, 58 per cent of Americans favour legalising marijuana.