From the beginning, the legislative push to legalize medical marijuana came with a deep-seated sense of impending doom. “Slim to none,” were the chances state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, gave a bill she filed this year to legalize medical marijuana.
Her comments came during an April 1 news conference with more than a month left in the legislative session. Her bill, and one filed by state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, did not receive a committee hearing this session. Though supporters hit a legislative brick wall, legalization supporters did maintain a sense of optimism. And for good reason.
Two days before the Capitol news conference, John Morgan, one of the state’s most prominent attorneys, stroked a $100,000 check to People United for Medical Marijuana, a political committee gearing up to push a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. Morgan, who is a top Democratic donor, is also the committee’s chairman.
He got involved because two decades ago his father used marijuana to help his battle with cancer.
“He was against illegal drugs, but my brother Tim said ‘You might want to try this,’ ” Morgan said. “He had an appetite and his anxiety went down.”
The effort to legalize medical marijuana has been around for a few years, but has lacked the momentum that Morgan brings to the effort.
“That was a real coup for us,” said Ben Pollara, who is managing United for Care, the group that’s acting as the face of the legalization push. “He has a massive public presence in the state and a lot of respect.
Morgan, who founded the Morgan & Morgan law firm, also serves as chairman for United for Care.
His check, along with a $50,000 donation from Barbara Stiefel, a Democratic rainmaker from Coral Gables, represent 78 percent of the $192,098 People United for Medical Marijuana has raised since its creation in 2009. The cash gave the group a quick credibility boost.
With the anticipation of logistical hurdles and well-financed opposition, the money has so far been used to hire a team of political operatives well versed in the art of Florida political combat.
“It’s not the first time this effort has been made in Florida, but this time there is some substantial money and political muscle behind it,” Pollara said.
He is a lobbyist and served on President Barack Obama’s 2012 national finance committee and was Florida finance director for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid.
If United for Care is the polished face of the campaign, United for Medical Marijuana and another political committee, Saving Florida’s Future, chaired by Pollara, are raising money for the initiative. So far the groups have spent $100,606 to hire a group of political professionals to help brand, message, and poll the legalization issue.
“That is the thing about it, voters really perceived it is personal issue and between a doctor and a patient,” said Dave Beattie, a Democratic pollster whose firm, Hamilton Campaigns, was paid nearly $25,000 by Saving Florida’s Future in mid-March to poll the issue.
Beattie, who does much of the polling for the Florida Democratic Party, came back with numbers that show 70 percent of residents support a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. His firm, located in Fernandina Beach, is not currently involved with the effort, but did front-end polling to determine if the legalization effort would have support.
“If you ask a question in the right way, you can get the answer you want,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free American Foundation and Save Our Society from Drugs, two St. Petersbug-based nonprofits.
“That’s what’s called a push poll, and we are not convinced this poll was not a push poll,” she added.
Morgan dismissed any ideas that the medical marijuana legalization is partisan, or aimed at exciting Democratic voters who otherwise might not go to the polls. Using ballot initiatives to drive voter turnout is a common political strategy.
“I’ve had people suggest that to me, but they are giving me too much credit for being smarter than I am,” he said.
Also on board is Impact Politics, a Weston-based firm headed by veteran consultant Brian Franklin. The firm has so far been paid $4,025 to serve as the initiative’s new media consultant. Its client list includes U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., the Florida Democratic Party, and the Florida Education Association, the state’s top teachers union.
Franklin declined comment for this story.
The effort is going to face opposition from both Fay-run non-profits. Drug Free American Foundation is set up as a so-called 501(c)(3) and is set up as an education organization, while Save Our Society from drugs has 501(c)(4) status, which means it can lobby.
“It has the ability to do unlimited lobbying, and we will do everything in our power to stop this ballot initiative from going forward,” Fay said.
Both groups were founded by Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and a large Republican donor. Sembler is well known in political circles. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed him Ambassador to Australia, and President George H. Bush tapped him to be ambassador to Italy in 2001.
Saving our Society from Drugs, a nonprofit he founded, gave $284,871 to Smart Colorado, a group in that state opposing Amendment 44, a legalization ballot initiative in that state. It was 40 percent of all contributions received by the group.
The group has been involved in lobbying against other legalization pushes across the country.
“What we are seeing in other states … is that we have created a big marijuana industry similar to the big tobacco industry,” Fay said. “It’s a whole entire industry popping up.”
Fay said that if United for Care gets enough signatures to get on the ballot, her group will likely challenge the measure in court. Medical marijuana legalization in Florida, she said, will have a similar impact as the explosion of pill mills in the state.
“The same type of unscrupulous doctors will open up pot shops and people will flood in from other states,” Fay said.
In order to even get on the ballot, supporters must collect 683,149 verified signatures, or 8 percent of votes cast in the 2012 presidential election, by Feb. 1, 2014. There have already been setbacks.
United for Care is not currently in the field collecting signatures. The group originally had 31,000 verified signatures and another roughly 70,000 not yet sent to local election officials, but had to scrap its original ballot language and start over.
“It was not strong enough in terms of controls. … We are currently redrafting,” Pollara said.
Morgan said they had a final meeting on the language Friday and filed with the secretary of state this week. People can begin signing the petition Tuesday.
Because around 25 percent of signatures are usually not verified due to inaccurate information, the group is trying to collect many more than needed.
“We think we will have to gather about 1 million,” Pollara said.
To help with outreach, in March People United for Medical Marijuana hired National Voter Outreach, a Nevada-based company that specializes in organizing signature drives.
In Florida, the group was extensively involved the failed Amendment 4, better known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment. It would have required voter approval to any local comprehensive plan. The company was hired by Floridians for Smarter Growth, a group that opposed the amendment.
Rick Arnold, the company’s CEO, did not return calls seeking comment. So far, his firm has been paid $20,000 for work on the legalization push.
Even if the company helps get the language on the ballot, a constitutional amendment requires 60 percent voter approval, which is a high-hurdle. The 2012 ballot included 11 constitutional amendments, eight of which did not get the needed votes.
With Florida’s 19 million people and 10 media markets, United for Care also faces challenges other legalization efforts did not: Huge costs. Unlike a candidate campaign, ballot initiatives need more than a simple majority of the vote, which also adds to the cost.
“Ballot initiatives can’t just rely on heavy ad buys in swing markets, they need to persuade the base, the middle and the moderates,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic political consultant not involved with the legalization initiative.
Since 2004, 12 states have tried to legalize marijuana by ballot initiatives. As part of those campaigns, 33 groups spent a total of $8.4 million, according to The National Institute of Money in State Politics. Pollara estimates that it will take up to $3 million to get the measure on the ballot and between $5 and $10 million to sway 60 percent of Florida voters to support the measure.
Fay says her group hopes to raise $5 million.
“We have not been able to match their money,” she said of campaigns in other states. “The other side has sugar daddies … who have taken up this cause.”
“Short money doesn’t move votes in Florida,” Cate said. “Campaigns need multimillions in TV ads to even be on the radar of most viewers.”
Though pushing to make medical marijuana legal in Florida is not new, for the first time there is political muscle behind the initiative. A group of Democratic political consultants is working to get the issue on the 2014 ballot.