The Weird Politics of Florida's Medical Marijuana Vote

Florida's medical marijuana vote was supposed to be a bellwether for the national legalization movement. But now, supporters face an uphill battle against a well-funded opposition campaign that is determined to beat back reforms of the state's drug...

|
Nov 3 2014, 7:52pm

Photos by Jon Raedle/Getty Images

On Tuesday, voters in the Sunshine State will consider Amendment 2, a hotly contested ballot initiative that would make Florida the 24th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. The vote is a national bellwether for the politics surrounding legalization: For supporters of the initiative, a win in Florida would be huge, signaling a major shift in attitudes toward pot policy, particularly in the South. But with less than 24 hours to go until voters head to the polls, the movement faces an uphill battle against a well-funded opposition campaign that is determined to beat back reforms of the state's drug laws.

"This is where presidents get picked, this is where trends get started," said Ben Pollara, a Florida Democratic political consultant and campaign manager of United for Care, the group behind Amendment 2.

To succeed and leave a national impact, Amendment 2 must pass with more than 60 percent of the vote, a task that Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana legalization advocacy group NORML called "a difficult benchmark to reach under ideal circumstances." In the politically (and otherwise) strange state of Florida, circumstances are not exactly "ideal": Florida sits in the marijuana-unfriendly South, has an expensive political market, and a midterm electorate that is expected to be older and more conservative than the one that turns out in presidential election years. While early polls showed overwhelming support for Amendment 2 among Florida voters, those numbers have been dwindling thanks to a brutal opposition campaign.

With nearly $5 million raised ($4 million of which was donated by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson) the Drug Free Florida PAC (run by Drug Free America's head couple and shady prohibitionists Mel and Betty Sembler) is the first well-funded anti-marijuana-policy-reform in any state. To put the numbers in perspective, consider that "No on 91," the primary opposition group fighting a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Oregon this year, has raised $179,352; "Vote No on Measure 2," the opposition group fighting a similar initiative in Alaska has raised just $97,045. As VICE noted earlier this year, when Washington legalized recreational in 2012, opponents raised just $15,995, and in Colorado, anti-drug groups backed by Sembler pulled in $577,410, which is still far below the millions raised by Drug Free Florida.

While Amendment 2 advocates at United for Care have raised nearly $7 million in campaign contributions, $4 million of which came from United for Care chairman John Morgan, a Florida attorney and major Democratic campaign bundler, the organization spent the bulk of its funding on gathering signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, and subsequently struggled to compete with the opposition in the final stretch.

The effect of the opposition's lush, negative campaign is evident in in the polls: While Quinnipac University polls in November, April, and July of 2013 found that about 80 percent of Floridians surveyed supported medical marijuana legalization, surveys taken last month showed that support had fallen to around 50 percent.

Legalization supporters caution that the poll numbers should be interpreted carefully. "When you ask people if they support medical marijuana in Florida, the support is overwhelming," said Karen Goldstein, a 67-year-old Florida activist with United for Care and executive director of NORML's Florida chapter. "When asked if they support Amendment 2, that's when support drops." (The numbers support her thesis: While early surveys asked about medical marijuana legalization in general, the later polls refer specifically to Amendment 2.)

Goldstein says the split is the result of the opposition campaign, which has decreased support for Amendment 2 even among voters who support medical marijuana, largely by trying to convince voters that the ballot measure will allow black market marijuana sales to flourish.

The anti-pot campaign has been emboldened by support from the Florida Sheriff's Association, which has argued that Amendment 2 would allow any run-of-the-mill drug dealer to become a "caregiver" and start doling out marijuana to children disguised as patients. The No on Amendment 2 claims, featured in television ads across the state, have forced supporters to defend themselves against fears that the measure will do more to increase recreational drug use than it will to help sick people. ( Local news outlets and PolitiFact have deemed these claims untrue.)

The opposition is so severe, Pollara said, that "even in the absence of Sheldon Adelson's $4 million [to the opposition], we'd still be running a competitive campaign."

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube and Florida Sheriff's Association treasurer Brad Steube disputed Pollara's argument. "When you talk about this particular issue, and the debilitating diseases defined in the amendment--cancer and glaucoma--and then you go to [the American Cancer Society and American Glaucoma Society] websites, you see they're against this," he said.

The shifty politics of Amendment 2 have led to accusations of ulterior motives on both sides. Both supporters and opponents are backed primarily by one large financial donor and one political party. Most Democrats, led by John Morgan and United for Care, have come out in support for Amendment 2, while Republicans, including Florida Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Senator Marco Rubio, have generally come down against the measure.

Complicating the issue is the tight gubernatorial race between Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott and former Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, in which both campaigns hope that turnout for Amendment 2 will ultimately help their candidate win the election. While Democrats hope that the ballot initiative could bring out younger, more liberal voters on Tuesday, supporters of Amendment 2 have also suggested that Republicans oppose the initiative simply because they fear it will give Crist a better shot at winning the election.

While some have speculated that Adelson's friendship with the Semblers have prompted his support for the Amendment 2 opposition, supporters of legalization have speculated that the Las Vegas gambling magnate might be trying to curry favor with Republicans in order to win support for expanding casino gambling in Florida. Adelson has also donated about $500,000 this cycle to Floridians United for our Children's Future, a conservative group that is a documented affiliate of Associated Industries of Florida, a PAC lobbying for the construction of casinos in South Florida.

"Sheldon Adelson has undoubtedly got eyes on expanding gambling in Florida, and by supporting the No on 2 campaign is ingratiating himself with the Florida legislature and Republicans," said Goldstein.

Notably the only high-profile Democrat to come out against Amendment 2 has been Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida congresswoman. A spokesperson for her office declined to comment about Wasserman-Schultz's position, but pointed me to a press release from June, in which the congresswoman raised concerns that the amendment is "written too broadly."

Morgan reacted strongly to Wasserman-Schultz's statement, slamming her in the press and questioning her understanding of the bill with comments like, "Does she not know what 'debilitating' means?" and, "After this, she won't get re-elected to the state senate."

Despite United for Care's coalition of supporters, including the Florida NAACP chapter, the SEIU, and the Florida Democratic Party, Morgan's brash demeanor has led opponents to accuse him of running an unconvincing one-man show that has failed to make a strong argument for medical pot. And while both sides have expressed hope that Amendment 2 may swing the electorate at the polls in November, whether a medical marijuana initiative can actually affect voter turnout is unclear.

"The common wisdom among those who run marijuana initiatives year in and year out is that these initiatives do not affect turnout," said Pollara, "But I can tell you the Republicans in Florida and Tallahassee certainly believe this will turn out a type of voter who will not vote for a Republican candidate. There is also a very palpable sense on the ground here that this is an issue that is exciting people, driving people who would otherwise be turned off by a long and brutal governor's campaign to vote."

***

If Amendment 2 passes, it could signal a shift in medical marijuana policy reform at the state and national levels. But a failure could force the legalization movement to reassess their strategies for pursuing state reforms going forward, helping to determine whether legalization advocates continue to put their energy and resources into passing ballot initiatives in 2016 and beyond.

"If we fail here, it's going to deal a serious blow to the broader marijuana reform movement," said Pollara. The landscape of marijuana politics in 2016 is "going to be largely dependent on what happens here in Florida," he added.

So far, national legalization groups have offered minimal support for Amendment 2, staking their priorities instead on Alaska and Oregon, where initiatives to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use are on the ballots this year. Where medical marijuana policy is concerned, activists say they will focus on pushing bills through the legislature.

The failure of Amendment 2, especially by a wide margin, could further encourage activists to abandon ballot initiatives in difficult states, and continue to focus their energy on bigger, easier victories in more left- and-libertarian-leaning states in the West and Northeast, where full legalization is more likely to pass.

But the problem with focusing on medical marijuana in state legislatures, Armentano, the NORML deputy director, told me, is that "state legislation tends to be compromised every step along the way in the legislative process." The result is often "fairly respected but over-restrictive medical marijuana programs," he said, pointing to laws passed by state legislatures in Florida, New York, and Minnesota earlier this year.

If proponents of Amendment 2 attract even 50 percent of the vote, however (ten points short of the 60 percent needed for Amendment 2 pass) their moderate success could invigorate local grassroots campaigns in states with lower thresholds to put medical marijuana on the ballot. And it could send a signal to federal and state politicians that supporting marijuana legalization isn't the political death knell it was long made out to be.