Florida recreational marijuana campaign might pose threat to MMJ legalization

By John Schroyer

The latest potential obstacle to medical cannabis legalization in Florida is coming from an unexpected source: marijuana advocates themselves.

A group is attempting to get a measure on the state’s ballot next year to legalize recreational marijuana, and one of its key executives is the deputy director of the Florida NORML chapter.

If the measure makes the ballot, it could derail MMJ legalization and cost Florida cannabis entrepreneurs a shot at an enormous new market. The fear is that neither measure would pass in such a scenario – effectively killing the state’s chances of legalizing medical cannabis anytime soon.

“If they put the recreational on the ballot, my guess is it might very well hurt medical marijuana,” said longtime political operative April Schiff, who owns Tampa-based Strategic Solutions of Florida. “If the forces on the conservative side are motivated to fight the recreational marijuana issue – and they will be – there will be so much messaging on how marijuana is bad for people, how it kills your brain cells and all these other scare tactics, and it will have a huge adverse effect on medical marijuana.”

That would dash the hopes of cannabis entrepreneurs who have been waiting eagerly for the 2016 election after the state nearly legalized MMJ in 2014. Many marijuana-related businesses launched in the months leading up to the election, anticipating that the measure would pass.

The group behind the recreational campaign is Sensible Florida, which is pushing a ballot initiative it calls “Regulate Florida.” The camp is currently waiting for the Florida Division of Elections to approve the measure’s formatting before it starts gathering signatures and approaching potential campaign donors.

“We have a good number of groups that have already committed to us to support the campaign,” said Michael Minardi, chair of Sensible Florida.

The big question now is whether the group has a realistic chance of getting the measure on the ballot and, if successful on that end, garnering enough support to get it passed.

Minardi declined to name any of the groups that have committed their support, and he didn’t address where the campaign will get the resources necessary to pay for a petition drive that will require organizers to gather likely well over 700,000 signatures. He said Sensible Florida will reveal the names of some supporters after the state signs off on the initiative’s format, likely on the same day the initiative language is made public.

Generating financial support could be a major obstacle for Sensible Florida, said Ben Pollara, the campaign manager at United for Care, which is behind the effort to legalize medical cannabis in Florida next year. Pollara said he even personally warned Minardi and Karen Goldstein, the vice chair of the Sensible Florida camp (and deputy director of Florida NORML), that they’ll need at least $4 or $5 million to pull off their initiative.

Even if they do raise the money, “it’s a Herculean task to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot,” Pollara said.

Goldstein also noted that there are at least two other initiatives already filed with the Division of Elections with the same aim: legalizing recreational.

But according to campaign finance documents for the two, which were founded in February and March respectively, neither have raised a single penny in contributions. Nor has Sensible Florida – which was founded in July – reported any fundraising.

United for Care has raised $1.1 million since December, mostly from Orlando attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the 2014 campaign as well. The only way Sensible Florida will likely have a solid chance, said Schiff, is if they find a similar benefactor.

Lobbyist Ron Watson, who has worked on MMJ reform issues at the state level, said he doubts that recreational marijuana legalization will wind up qualifying for the ballot.

But Watson hopes both medical and recreational legalization initiatives are put before voters next year, which he said would likely bring out pro-marijuana voters who otherwise may not cast a ballot. It also would prove that United for Care isn’t pushing for recreational legalization in disguise.

Still, he acknowledged that given the way political momentum works, it would probably be easier to pass recreational if medical is approved first.

Schiff added that she doesn’t think enough voters will be able to cut through all the political noise that will be generated in a presidential election year to choose either between MMJ or rec. Instead, it’ll likely come down to yes on both or no on both.

And the opposition will lump both initiatives together.

“Voters don’t pay enough attention to draw a distinct difference between the two, and it’ll create such a negative connotation for the marijuana issue overall that it will definitely have an impact,” Schiff said.

United for Care has been working on legalizing medical marijuana in Florida for years now. In 2014, it nearly got MMJ past the 60% threshold needed for ballot initiatives to become law. The effort was thrown off track in part by cannabis foe Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino mogul who pumped millions of dollars into advertisements and other efforts aimed at sinking the initiative.

United for Care – and John Morgan – swore to keep up the fight to legalize, and the group has been at it since the 2014 general election. Currently, the campaign has collected around 400,000 signatures of the 683,000 it needs to make the 2016 ballot, and the group is expecting to submit its petitions before Christmas.

There’s no competition currently between Sensible Florida and United for Care, however. In fact, leaders in both camps speak highly of each other.

But the political reality is that Sensible Florida could be a death knell for MMJ if it does go the distance.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com