Florida medical marijuana amendment headed down to the wire

florida marijuana hbtv hemp beach tvA constitutional amendment effort asking Florida voters to legalize medical marijuana might be headed for a photo finish. The group has until Feb. 1 to gather the more than 683,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. The group has officially filed just more than 377,000 and is significantly below the mark in swaths of the state such as the Panhandle and southwest Florida. Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan and his firm Morgan & Morgan poured $2.8 million into the People United for Medical Marijuana organization this fall — boosting his investment in the cause to 83 percent of the effort’s entire budget, records show.

People United in turn spent $2 million in December to gather signatures via California-based PCI Consultants Inc., which has blanketed radio airwaves with ads and shopping malls and public spaces with signature-gatherers.

“Most people told me, ‘John, you don’t have a chance,’ ” Morgan said. “But I’m the kind of person who says, ‘let’s not spend all day mowing the grass. Let’s get 10 mowers out there and do it in an hour.'” A November poll by Quinnipiac University found that 82 percent of Florida voters favor legalizing doctor-prescribed marijuana. But whether voters will have a say remains an open question. The campaign got off to a late start in 2013. And unlike a land-conservation amendment that appears destined for the November ballot, the marijuana question could come down to the wire.

Besides the overall total, backers also have to collect signatures in 14 of Florida’s 27 congressional districts equal to 8 percent of the turnout in the last presidential election. According to the Florida Division of Elections website, the effort has garnered just over half the signatures needed in only nine districts so far, mostly Democratic seats in the Orlando, Tampa and South Florida markets. This week, the group has dropped tens of thousands of signatures in Central Florida supervisors’ offices, which verify them.

“They’re turning up the volume,” said Seminole County Elections Supervisor Mike Ertel, who brought in extra staff this week to help verify signatures. Nevertheless, “They’ve got some work to do,” he said. Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles said his office was keeping up with the influx. But he was “not predicting” whether the initiative would qualify.

Morgan said he had faith the company would deliver and has already collected more than 1 million signatures. If three-fourths of those signatures are valid, the group would likely make the ballot. But some supervisors have said the quality of the petitions is getting worse. “I’m going to have the signatures; it’s just a matter of if they’re valid,” Morgan said. Benjamin Pollara, who is running the signature drive, said he was confident they would qualify once all the signatures were counted.

“The validity of petitions is going to naturally fall off as we are sending so many in recent weeks and as folks have signed more than once,” he said. Regardless of the deadline, the push has already prompted Florida lawmakers to take the issue seriously, holding a first-ever House hearing last week on the benefits of a strain of marijuana known as “Charlotte’s Web” pushed by the parents of children suffering from epileptic seizures. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, vowed to draft a bill legalizing the strain for prescription use, which is billed as “low buzz” because it is low in the psychoactive chemical that produces highs.

Meanwhile, if they don’t make the deadline, Morgan said he’d re-focus on making the 2016 ballot. But the initiative also is still waiting on the Florida Supreme Court to declare whether it meets legal muster. Proposed constitutional amendments have to avoid ballot summaries that are misleading, a decision the high court ultimately makes. Last month, Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office and legislative leaders argued the initiative was misleading because it could open the door to pill mill-like marijuana outlets in every strip mall. Morgan has denied the amendment would have such an effect.

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