Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and Democratic challenger George Sheldon clashed with each other and with Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer on Monday, tackling issues such as medical marijuana and same-sex marriage during the first and only debate in the race for Florida's top legal job.
Bondi said she worries a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana will allow the drug to fall into the hands of young teens, but Sheldon said he trusts doctors to prescribe it if the measure passes.
Bondi said she doesn't want to hurt Floridians with terminal illnesses but she said Florida's young teens could get their hands on the drug as an unintended consequence of the initiative. The proposal would allow marijuana to be prescribed to people with debilitating diseases.
"I think we're going to have a pot clinic on every corner," Bondi said. "The doctors who prescribe it would have full immunity from the civil bar."
But Sheldon said it would be no different from any other drug prescribed by doctors and that law enforcement would crack down on any abuse.
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Wohlsifer said the ballot measure doesn't go far enough.
On same-sex marriage, Bondi recited a statement she has often repeated: She has sworn to uphold the Florida Constitution, including an amendment passed by Florida voters six years ago banning gay marriage.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from five states seeking to prohibit gay and lesbian unions, clearing the way for an immediate expansion of same-sex marriage. Bondi called it "a tremendous win" for supporters of same-sex marriage. She said her office would review how they should respond.
Sheldon said the high court's decision not to take up any of the same-sex marriage cases showed the justices didn't think there was a wide disagreement among the various court circuits.
"Government ought to get out of the business of telling people who they can love," Sheldon said.
Judges in four Florida counties — Palm Beach, Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward— have overturned Florida's ban on same-sex marriage. But Bondi's office has appealed the rulings and asked judges to stop ruling on same-sex marriage cases until the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether states can ban gay marriage. During Monday's debate, when asked if she would cease defending the marriage ban, Bondi said other same-sex marriage cases are pending in other court circuits and she wants to see what happens to them before taking action.
Sheldon accused Bondi of not intervening sufficiently in utility rate cases. Bondi defended her record, saying she pushed for one of Florida's largest power companies, Duke Energy Florida, to give back $54 million it collected from ratepayers to pay for a failed nuclear plant. But Sheldon said she was late to the party.
"The bottom line is she has 400 lawyers in her office," Sheldon said. "She needs to untie their hands and allow them to be engaged in utility rate increases."
Bondi said she opposes expanding gambling beyond Indian casinos in Florida. Sheldon said he supports it, if it's heavily regulated.
The candidates also disagreed on whether Florida's "stand your ground law" should be changed. The law says people who are not involved in illegal activity have the right to use force — even deadly force — if they reasonably believe it's necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm. Sheldon said he supported "tinkering" with the law, and that, at a minimum, it shouldn't be a part of standard jury instructions. Wohlsifer said he supported the law since individuals have a right to protect themselves, and Bondi said any changes should come from the Legislature.
The law became the center of debate during the trial of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, more than two years ago.
Monday's debate aired only in the Tampa and Orlando television markets.