As marijuana generated headlines across the state last year — example: “Will medical marijuana initiative go up in smoke?” — a campaign to legalize medical marijuana has spent millions to gather enough petitions to get a proposed amendment on the ballot. As the weeks tick down to the deadline, the campaign head hopes he can file enough petitions by next Wednesday.
To get his proposal on the ballot, Ben Pollara needs about 683,000 signatures from Florida’s 11.9 million registered voters. Supervisors of elections will examine the petitions and make sure they belong to actual voters. Following tradition, some of the petitions will be thrown out because they were not signed by Florida voters. As of Wednesday, Pollara said he’s close to a million signatures.
Last February, the Miami Herald published poll results from People United for Medical Marijuana: 70 percent of Florida voters would support a constitutional amendment. Soon after, Pollara, a Democratic fundraiser and lobbyist, received an email telling him he ought to call attorney John Morgan. Morgan is best known as the guy who spawned personal-injury attorney advertisements, using his “For The People” slogan as often as possible. Among politicians, he’s also known as one of the heaviest political donors — for Democrats and Republicans.
“Mark my words,” Morgan told Pollara, “I’m going to spearhead this.”
Morgan aired advertisements asking for an “army of angels” to rise for the cause.
A PERSONAL CAUSE
The issue, he said, was personal. When his dad was dying of cancer, none of the prescription drugs gave him peace. Only marijuana, Morgan said, helped ease the nausea and pain. When Morgan was only 20, his then-18-year-old brother was hurt while a lifeguard at Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Resort, paralyzing his arms and legs. To this day, his brother says the spasms feel like lightning jolting his body, so he uses marijuana to calm his nerves.
“He suffers in ways I cannot begin to describe,” Morgan said. “I asked him one time, ‘What do they [the spasms] feel like?’ He said, ‘Like lightning up your body from the tip of your toe into the middle of your eyes.’ … When the pain becomes unbearable, he lights it [the marijuana]. He takes one hit, and all the pain goes away. Who wouldn’t want their brother to be pain-free?”
This issue has popped up again and again with election cycles. The difference this time, Pollara said, is Morgan.
“There is absolutely, unequivocally no way I could have done this without Morgan,” Pollara said. “Not just with his money but with his celebrity and his profile and the amount of free attention he brought to this issue.”
By November, Morgan had donated $972,000 to the campaign. He said the amount will be closer to $3 million by the campaign’s end. “You try to make a difference with the small amount of money you have,” he said. “It used to be Cheech and Chong,” referring to two comedians known for their love for marijuana. “Now, it’s Cheech and John.”
By November, the campaign had paid two organizations about $940,000 to hire paid petition-gatherers, according to state records. By December, the petition-gatherers were being paid anywhere from $2 to $5 per signature.
A Quinnipiac University poll in November said 82 percent of voters wanted doctors to be able to prescribe marijuana. “Support is overwhelming among every group surveyed, ranging from 70 [percent in favor] — 26 percent [opposed] among Republicans to 90 — 10 percent among voters 18 to 29 years old,” a news release announced.
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in the release, “If the folks who want to legalize medical marijuana in Florida can get their proposal on the ballot, they are overwhelmingly favored to prevail next November.”
But Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a challenge to the petition in October, declaring the 74-word amendment summary would deceive voters and would be more lenient than any other state’s laws.
She declined an interview for this story, but in a news release, she said the amendment’s language would allow physicians to prescribe marijuana for any condition the physician wanted, and the amendment would offer immunity to physicians from civil and criminal liability.
“With no ‘condition’ off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age,” she said in the release. “ … If voters are asked to open Florida to expansive marijuana use, they deserve to know it.”
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford wouldn’t conduct a phone interview, but his assistant said he opposes the amendment.
“The activities associated with grow houses, cultivation, and distribution are fraught with opportunities for street crime,” Lauri-Ellen Smith wrote in an email. “This poses a danger to law enforcement and the public in general. The Sheriff remains convinced that this is not good public policy for Florida and remains opposed to it.”
Springfield Police Chief Philip Thorne, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said he would support pills that administer cannabinoid chemicals, but the law-enforcement association doesn’t support legalizing what he called “street pot.”
“We oppose anything that would allow citizens to run around impaired,” he said. “It creates a public-safety issue.”
Morgan, whose law firm represents patients in civil cases against doctors, said he wants doctors to have immunity so they feel free to prescribe the drug, which he said is far safer than prescription painkillers.
“It kind of seems — — backward that Pam Bondi wants doctors to be sued, and I want them to have immunity,” he said. “I’m in the business of people who are in pain, and when you get Oxycontin in your system, you’re hooked.”
“I think she’s making a mistake,” he said about Bondi. “Look, if the people want it, I’m going to give the people what they want. … The people of Florida wanted to ride motorcycles with no helmets, and I think that’s crazy as hell, but if they want it, they get to do it.”
He said the purpose of the campaign is not to bring Florida closer to legalizing recreational marijuana. “I’m not the cool dad who’s rolling marijuana cigarettes,” he said. “I don’t look at it as recreational.”
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Local volunteer Cathy Klein said even if it does pass, she’s probably going to need to take her 9-year-old son to another state to try the treatment before it’s allowed here.
Her son Sean has suffered from epileptic seizures since he was 2½.
“There is nothing out there currently that helps his seizures,” she said. “I’ve heard a number of stories. It’s amazing how well this [marijuana] works and how quickly this works.”
She said she’s gathered about 400 signatures for the campaign since November.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland said as long as the petitions are filed to him at least two weeks before the Feb. 1 deadline, he should be able to verify them.
Pollara, the campaign’s director, said the state petitions should be filed next Tuesday and Wednesday. The reason the petitions are coming down to the last month, Pollara said, is because he didn’t start the campaign until February.
He said people have told him he started too late — “You guys are way behind the eight-ball,” he said one friend told him. But he said he has enough support, and he’s confident it will pass.
You must be logged in to post a comment.