SUN-SENTINEL: New medical marijuana amendment moves forward
By Dan Sweeney - The second push to legalize medical marijuana in Florida is moving full steam ahead, with more than 100,000 signed petitions presented to the state on Wednesday.
"This is a massive head start over the previous campaign, which started late," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of United for Care, the organization behind the medical marijuana amendment. "If we can sustain this pace, we should ensure our place on the ballot before the holidays."
A similar proposal in 2014 garnered 57.6 percent of the vote — shy of the required 60 percent. But its odds may improve in 2016 because of an expected increase in voter turnout and more liberalized views toward marijuana, with the recreational use of pot now legal in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia.
"Turnout in presidential years is different than the turnout in off years," said Kevin Wagner, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who is an expert in Florida politics. "You'll get a lot more young people, and a lot more people that only turn out in presidential years, and they'll be a lot more likely to vote for medical marijuana."
This year's version of the amendment addresses loopholes that critics said would result in marijuana dispensaries on every street corner, doling out joints to minors and giving drug dealers a legal supply line.
It allows the state to ban felons who are serving as caregivers from buying marijuana for qualified patients. And it tightens the definition of a qualified patient. The 2014 version allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana for any condition for which they thought the benefits outweighed the risks. In the new version, a patient has to have one of a list of serious diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS or a disease of "the same kind or class."
The Department of State now has 30 days to review the 100,000 petitions to make sure at least 68,317 of the signatures are valid. Then state Supreme Court will determine whether the proposal is constitutional and focuses specifically on one subject.
"We expect to have our review date by mid-August," Pollara said.
So far, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have medical marijuana laws on the books. In addition, decriminalization laws have passed in 15 states, allowing police to issue citations for possession rather than charging people with a misdemeanor.
In the last month, every county commission in South Florida has broached the topic.
In Miami-Dade, the county commission passed a law, effective July 10, allowing marijuana users caught with 20 grams or less to be issued a $100 citation instead of facing an arrest.
The Palm Beach County Commission decided to have county attorneys look into a similar law on June 23 and the issue will come up for a vote in Broward County after the commission ends its summer break on Aug. 11.
"There are so many good people out there who haven't done anything else wrong and then they get caught with one joint, they're arrested and their lives are ruined," Commissioner Martin Kiar said. "My goal, if I'm able to get this through, is to give good people another chance in life."
The 2014 amendment enjoyed widespread support until opposition finally organized, backed by $5.5 million from multibillionaire conservative donor Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Supporters had their own angel investor in the form of attorney John Morgan, who spent more than $4 million getting the amendment on the ballot. Morgan's law firm, Morgan and Morgan, employed then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, and the medical marijuana issue became bogged down in partisan politics.
"I always thought it was kind of odd that the marijuana issue became such a partisan issue in Florida, because it hasn't been elsewhere," Wagner said. "I think there was a perception that [Morgan] was a big supporter of Charlie Crist, and so that hurt support among Republicans. If they're smarter this time around, they'll look for a broader appeal that doesn't appear quite as partisan."
But getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot takes a great deal of money, and so United for Care relies on Morgan for financial backing, even if the outspoken lawyer has not yet taken a leading role this time around as a spokesman for the movement.
Morgan's firm donated more than $233,000 to the cause in June, the first money Morgan or his firm has spent on the medical marijuana drive since the failed 2014 attempt.
To get on the ballot, an initiative needs to get a number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the total vote in the previous presidential election, which comes to 683,179 signatures. After the state Supreme Court approves the proposed amendment, the next step for United for Care is to step up the signatures. The committee has until Feb. 1 to get the rest of them.