Florida’s John Morgan said his dying dad’s pain inspired push for medical marijuana

John Morgan’s dad wouldn’t eat. Radiation treatments for his esophageal cancer had burned out Ramon Morgan’s throat and deadened his taste buds. He twisted himself into a fetal position, hallucinating from the pain and drugs he was prescribed and tied to an oxygen tank to help him breathe. Morgan’s younger brother, Tim, who was paralyzed from the neck down in high school, had a suggestion that had helped him: Smoke marijuana.

“The first time he did it, [the housekeeper] made him a pot-roast dinner, and he ate the whole dinner and had a Miller Lite,” Morgan recalled. “He said it was a miracle.” This is what Morgan, one of Florida’s top political fundraisers, says is driving him to lead the fight to legalize medical marijuana in the state. “Dad got to pass away not in distress but with dignity and with compassion,” he told a crowd in Tallahassee earlier this year.

But his critics suggest Morgan is pushing a medical-marijuana ballot initiative to draw liberal voters to the polls next year in an attempt to help Charlie Crist regain the Governor’s Office. Morgan, 57, shrugs when people attribute political motives to his campaign. Voters can decide what to believe. “Cancer and debilitating diseases, they don’t pick political parties,” he said. Patriarch of the Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan law firm, Morgan has long put his money to work in politics and causes. A prolific donor for President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and other Democrats, Morgan gave $2 million last year to a food bank in Central Florida.

He wants Florida to join the ranks of 20 other states where medicinal-marijuana use is allowed. Through September, he had poured $400,000 into the campaign to place a medical-marijuana constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot. That figure could grow past $1 million as the chairman for People United for Medical Marijuana tries to make a February deadline to gather the 683,149 required voter signatures. The group says it has more than 200,000 signatures gathered so far. Last week, Crist, a lawyer in Morgan’s firm, announced his bid for governor in 2014 as a Democrat. Morgan has made it a point since 2010 to keep Crist’s face plastered on Morgan & Morgan billboards across the state and is expected to help finance his campaign.

Business groups supporting Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election see the marijuana amendment as a mobilization effort for Crist. “I’m not sure anyone believes him when he says he’s doing this just to look out for people in pain or with specific types of diseases,” said Dave Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is opposing the amendment along with the Florida Medical Association and state Sheriffs Association. “Certainly, we’re concerned about Charlie Crist’s employer and what’s motivating him to put this on the ballot.”

Crist has said he supports legalizing medical marijuana. And Morgan has admitted asking former Obama campaign strategists whether the amendment would likely have any effect on the 2014 race. Already, Republicans are lining up against the amendment. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, plan to fight it when it goes before the Florida Supreme Court for review Dec. 5.

Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office also will argue before the court that the question’s ballot summary and title are misleading. They say the amendment could lead to pot stores cropping up in strip malls and neighborhoods. The amendment summary says it would authorize “the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.”

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