With the help of a massive infusion of money from attorney John Morgan, the petition to put medical marijuana on Florida’s Nov. 4 election ballot squeaked past the deadline to get enough petition signatures to qualify.
As of Friday, state election officials had verified 710,508 valid petition signatures, with 683,149 needed by Feb. 1.
That doesn’t make it certain Floridians will get to vote on the measure, however. One major hurdle remains: The state Supreme Court must approve the legality of the measure and its ballot language.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has challenged the language as unclear and misleading. Oral arguments were heard on the challenge in December, and the court must issue a decision by April 1.
If the court approves the language, a hard-fought campaign could result.
Polls have shown strong public support for the idea of allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes when prescribed by a doctor. A Quinnipiac University survey last fall showed Florida voters favored it 82-16 percent.
That sounds like a comfortable margin, considering it takes a 60 percent vote to amend the state Constitution.
Drug abuse opponents, however, contend the measure would lead to spillover use of marijuana for recreational purposes and have vowed to oppose it.
Advocates of liberalization of marijuana laws say support for such measures tends to decline somewhat when discussion turns to establishing an actual medical marijuana industry. The amendment would set up a state program for identifying patients entitled to obtain marijuana and certifying treatment centers to produce and distribute it.
“We’ve seen that kind of polling on the question of whether doctors should be able to recommend it, but usually the numbers drop a bit when you ask about setting up a system to produce and distribute it,” said Steve Fox, a veteran campaigner for liberalized marijuana laws. “During the campaign, it tends to get a bit tighter.”
There’s also “a definite pattern” that marijuana initiatives get 8 to 10 percent greater support during presidential election years, when more young people turn out to vote, than in off-years like this one, he said.
Among the opponents of the measure is the Drug Free America Foundation, based in St. Petersburg — an organization supported by major Republican political donor and political activist Mel Sembler.
Calvina Fay, executive director of the foundation, has said a campaign will be mounted against the measure if it makes the ballot.
In a written statement Friday, Fay said the petition meeting the signature requirement “really doesn’t change anything. ... We believe the language is misleading and are hopeful that the Justices’ will rule soon. This also doesn’t change the fact that the initiative is riddled with loopholes that would create de facto legalization in our state. We believe that if this gets to the ballot, Floridians will vote wisely and reject it.”
Morgan, a wealthy Orlando trial lawyer who’s principle of the Morgan & Morgan “for the people” law firm, is also a major political donor and an important political patron of former Gov. Charlie Crist, now running against Gov. Rick Scott. He has vowed to support a campaign in favor of the issue with “whatever it takes.”
Morgan said he has spent $3 million to $4 million so far supporting the initiative, most or it for gathering petition signatures. When it appeared late last year that the campaign might run out of time to gather signatures before the Feb. 1 deadline, Morgan upped the pay for the signature gatherers from $1 to $4 for each signature, drawing in workers from out of state.
Ben Pollara, manager of the initiative campaign, called it “an historic day for Florida – we’re thrilled to have gone above and beyond the signatures we need. If the court allows it on the ballot, we’re confident the people of Florida will back it.”
Pollara said medical use of marijuana “is not a controversial issue – if a doctor and patient decide it’s of benefit, the patient ought to be able to use it without having to live like a criminal.”
There will be one other citizen-sponsored constitutional amendment initiative on the ballot. Already designated Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment would require the state to set aside at least a third of the proceeds of the document stamp tax on real estate documents in a fund for purchase of land for conservation.
The state Legislature could add constitutional amendments to the ballot as well.