Monday, 15 July 2013

New push in Florida for medical marijuana

A drive is on to amend Florida's constitution to allow medical marijuana. 

Kim Russell is not a hippie. 
A devout Christian, the 42-year-old Orlando mom home-schools her children and drives them to play dates in a minivan. She is treasurer of a stay-at-home moms' group and a member of her local Republican executive committee. She does not own any tie-dye clothes. 

Still, the bumper sticker on Russell's Chrysler Town & Country can draw "interesting looks." Passing drivers sometimes smile or give her a thumbs up when they read that Russell wants to make medical marijuana legal in Florida.

The issue has been an obsession since shortly after Russell's father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and she learned the drug may help control the symptoms. 

Russell cashed out her retirement account and took on a second mortgage to finance a petition drive in 2009. She went to speaking engagements in pearls and a suit. It was the second push for a medical marijuana amendment in Florida in a decade. 

Like the first, it failed for lack of resources. But Russell and others are betting the third time is the charm. They have reason to be hopeful. 

This month medical marijuana proponents are starting the most organized effort Florida has ever seen to enshrine doctor-approved cannabis in the state's constitution. 

Unlike past petition drives, this one will be well funded. Personal injury lawyer John Morgan — famous for his "for the people" television and billboard ads — is pledging to do "whatever it takes" to pass the referendum next year. 

Momentum has been building across the country, with 19 states and the District of Columbia approving medical marijuana. Whether Florida is ready to become the first Southern state to join that group remains unclear. 

The bar for constitutional amendments is high: Successful campaigns are expensive and the petition drive has been slow to get going. No signatures have been gathered yet, and nearly 700,000 are needed by Feb. 1. 

Meanwhile, critics are taking aim, pledging to challenge the referendum in court — and in the court of public opinion. They argue full-blown legalization is the real end-game and the benefits of medical marijuana are oversold. 

Some wonder if the campaign is more about electing Democrats in next year's election than helping sick people. 

Russell, a libertarian-leaning Republican, says the issue is not about politics for her. 

"It's freedom and it's also compassion," she said.


Russell had no political experience when she formed People United for Medical Marijuana in 2009. She took her petition to concerts and other large events but never came close to gathering enough signatures. 

"I was naive, no doubt about it," she said. 

Russell was struggling to gain traction when political consultant Ben Pollara contacted her. 

Pollara was Hillary Rodham Clinton's Florida fundraising chairman in 2008. Last year, he ran a federal Super PAC supporting Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. 

When the election cycle ended, Pollara used some of the leftover money for a medical marijuana poll that showed 70 percent of likely voters favor the issue. He showed the results to Morgan, and the attorney agreed to provide financial support. 

Morgan said he was convinced of marijuana's medical efficacy after seeing the drug help his dying father, who was stricken with esophageal cancer and emphysema. 

"It was a very painful, stressful, death, and it gave him relief," Morgan said. 

Pollara asked to take over Russell's group. She agreed. 

"They bring professionalism, organizational skills, money, all the connections, just knowing how the political scene works," Russell said. 

Renamed "United for Care," the group has an attractive website and little else. Most of its efforts have gone toward crafting a petition that can withstand a constitutional challenge.


Florida law requires constitutional amendments to focus on a single issue. 

Setting up a new regulatory framework for medical marijuana will touch on many aspects of state government, but Pollara believes it will pass legal muster. 

"We feel like we've drafted it so there's only a single substantial impact," he said of the amendment language, which was approved by Florida's secretary of state Wednesday so the group can begin collecting petition signatures. 

Because opponents of medical marijuana often point to states like California, where loose controls have led to a free-for-all of clinics and patients with dubious ailments, considerable time went into crafting language calling for a tight regulatory system in Florida. 

Explaining all of that succinctly in the 75-word summary and 12-word title that will appear on the ballot is also critical. The actual amendment is 2.5 pages, but most people will not read it. 

"Those 12 words and 75 words are extremely important," Pollara said. 

The emphasis on the ballot language has slowed the campaign start. With less than seven months to collect signatures, money will be critical. 

Upwards of $3 million is needed to pay signature gatherers and much more for advertising. 

The campaign raised $193,167 between January and March, with the bulk coming from Morgan. Pollara said second quarter fundraising reports they will show results similar to the first quarter. 

The big fundraising push begins this month.. 

Morgan has agreed to keep his checkbook open, but he is also hitting up other deep-pocketed sympathizers. 

"Some very high-profile national people" have agreed to contribute, he said. 

Yet as the campaign gains momentum, the involvement of Morgan, Pollara and other Democratic activists has raised concerns that the referendum is more about politics than patients. 

Morgan denies any hidden political agenda, saying he believes the referendum will have bipartisan appeal, noting it is a rare point of philosophical agreement with his conservative wife. 

"My wife has spent most of our marriage canceling out every single vote I've ever made and we finally agree on something, which is medical marijuana," he said. 

Social conservatives are already lining up against the issue, though. So are anti-drug groups. 

"We think it's just a very, very bad idea," said Calvina Fay, executive director of the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation and the organization's lobbying arm, Save Our Society from Drugs. 

Founded by influential Republican political donor Mel Sembler, Drug Free America organized opposition to the medical marijuana petition drive in Florida in the late 1990s. The group has waged similar campaigns around the country in recent years. 

Fay says she will challenge the referendum at every step. She hopes to get it thrown off the ballot. 

If it survives, Fay will make sure Floridians hear that marijuana is a "toxic weed." 

She also plans to attack the petition drive as a pretext for full blown legalization, which only 40 percent of Floridians support according to the Pollara-commissioned poll. 

"People with private agendas that want to be able to get high and do it within the law, that's not what truly sick people deserve," Fay said. 

Many medical marijuana advocates do believe the drug should be completely decriminalized, but Russell is adamant the referendum "is not a stepping stone." 

Russell's 67-year-old father is doing well. His tremors have not kept him from working. 

But after hearing so many stories of people suffering, Russell is committed to seeing the campaign through. 

"It's very personal for all of us," she said.

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