Medical marijuana could be ‘game-changer’ in Florida governor’s race

by H.B. Koplowitz

Florida will become the first state to test whether “pot power” can help elect a political candidate.

By a 4-to-3 vote, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Jan. 27 that a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution to legalize medical marijuana can be on the November ballot. Supporters collected well over the 683,000 signatures needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot, and county officials have validated a sufficient number of names. The court challenge was the last hurdle to getting the initiative on the ballot.

The measure is being bankrolled by John Morgan, a prominent personal injury attorney and Democratic donor from Orlando, whose law firm employs former Florida governor and current gubernatorial candidate, former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. As governor, Crist signed into law one of the harshest pot penalties in the country, but now says he supports medical marijuana as “an issue of compassion.”

Republican operatives say the referendum could have an impact on the November election — especially the governor’s race.

“It’ll be an absolute game-changer,” Republican political strategist Bob Wolfe told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. He said the ruling could draw more young Floridians to vote, helping Crist, who is expected to become the Democratic nominee to run for his old job against incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who opposes medical marijuana.

“Most people that are my age or younger are definitely very comfortable with [medical marijuana],” Ryan Anderson, 36, the elected state Republican committeeman for Broward County, told the newspaper. “It could definitely hurt Republicans.”

State Rep. Jim Waldman (D-Coconut Creek) and Scott Spages, a Davie Republican who is active in conservative Christian causes, both told the newspaper they think medical marijuana will draw more Democrats and liberal voters to the polls.

Democrats say they believe the referendum also has support among older voters. State Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood), 67, told the newspaper that many people in her age group who have experienced debilitating medical conditions will support the measure. “My generation, baby boomers, they all know about marijuana, and they’ve experienced cancer,” she said.

Crist supporter and former Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, 85, thinks people his age will also vote for medical marijuana. “It’s going to turn a lot of seniors out,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “Senior citizens want to be able to take medical marijuana for their conditions and their doctors are recommending it.”

The heads of the oldest pro-pot advocacy group in Florida, the Cannabis Action Network, view the initiative effort with bemusement.

In a telephone interview, Florida CAN Executive Director Jodi James said legalizing medical marijuana would benefit sick people, but it would not help the thousands of recreational pot smokers facing up to five years in prison for possessing more than 20 grams or a single plant. She added that under the initiative, marijuana would be treated like a prescription drug, and there is no tax on the sale of prescription drugs.

The group’s long-term goal is to make marijuana legal for adults, so it could be grown, sold, taxed and regulated like cigarettes and booze, raising state revenues and reducing the number of nonviolent drug offenders being sent to prison, she said.

When James was asked if she thought this is the first time a marijuana initiative was being used to help a political candidate, her answer was succinct. “Absolutely,” she said.

The initiative is opposed by anti-drug, law enforcement and business groups, as well as Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office argued before the Supreme Court Dec. 5 that the wording of the proposed amendment is misleading and would open the floodgates for marijuana use in the state.

Morgan denies that his million-dollar investment in the pot initiative is to get a wedge issue on the ballot to help Crist. He has said he supports medical marijuana for personal reasons — pot helped his father and brother when they had cancer.

Democratic strategist Ben Pollara of Coral Gables, who directed the effort to get the initiative on the same Nov. 4 ballot in which Crist would face Scott, also said the pot initiative has nothing to do with Crist’s candidacy.

“No, they are not connected,” he said.

He said he got involved in the initiative effort because it’s “ridiculous” that people with debilitating illnesses are denied a drug that could help them. He also said that given the increasingly popular acceptance of medical cannabis, there was only an upside for any candidate, Democrat or Republican, who supported the initiative.

A poll taken last year found 70 percent of voters supported medical marijuana, and nearly half approved of legalizing pot for personal use. (In Florida, it takes 60 percent of voters to pass a constitutional amendment.) Another poll in November found that an overwhelming 82 percent supported the proposed amendment, including 70 percent of Republicans and a whopping 88 percent of the all-important independent vote.

Crist told the Sun-Sentinel that Morgan wasn’t motivated by politics, but conceded having the measure on the ballot could help him. “I kind of hope it does,” he said. “Wouldn’t bother me.”

© H.B. Koplowitz 2/3/14

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