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Pot shots


Looking to both pick a fight and generate publicity for themselves, advocates of legalizing marijuana for medical use hope planning an Orlando hemp festival will land them in court.

Orlando attorney Dick Wilson says the request to use a city facility could offer the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the city's requirements for the use of public space -- just as it did in Gainesville and Jacksonville Beach. He plans to file the request to use a city of Orlando park for an October hemp festival within a few weeks.

The Coalition Advocating Medical marijuana, a year-old statewide advocacy group that held a conference last weekend in Orlando, is preparing to collect signatures to put the issue to a public vote. But that ballot likely won't take place until 2000. So the conference crowd -- a mix of bearded hippies with hemp bags and conservatively dressed patients with accessories like oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and canes -- immediately focused on the first Orlando hemp festival.

Wilson says governments throughout the state subtly curtail free speech by imposing fees on using public space. Ideally, he says, "if you want a permit to hold a rally in a public park, by God, you should just have to go in and ask for it."

Ron Barna, park manager for Lake Eola, says it doesn't exactly work like that. No group can be turned down because it endorses a particular cause. But "everybody is required to get insurance" to use the public space, he says. The amount of coverage "depends on what they are going to be doing."

For example, the sale of alcoholic beverages may require up to $1 million worth of insurance. The coverage, and its cost, is determined by an insurance company contracted through the city, he says. If extra police are deemed necessary, a group also may have to cover that cost.

The requirement for insurance is the point of contention for Wilson, who specializes in First Amendment issues. In successfully fighting similar requirements elsewhere, Wilson says he learned, "you can't buy advertising like you get when you sue." Mention suing for the right to hold a hemp festival and the court-house steps buzz with media, he says.

Kevin Aplin, who organizes such festivals throughout Florida through the Cannabis Action Network, says the cost of insurance varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but usually runs at least $300 to $400. That is money, he says, his organization simply doesn't have. "Believe me," says Aplin, "sometimes we make it to a rally with just the gas in our car."

Orlando's requirements are not as restrictive as some. But, Aplin says, fighting the requirements in court can benefit all groups with limited resources.

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