The pot vote may decide the Florida governor’s race.
Democratic operatives are pushing a statewide referendum on medical marijuana that Republican Governor Rick Scott’s supporters say threatens to tilt the race against him. State Republicans have filed a legal challenge to keep the referendum off the ballot.
Democrats and marijuana activists across the country are monitoring Florida’s quest to become the first state in the South to legalize some marijuana use, watching to see if the issue has a spillover effect that may offer a blueprint for the 2016 elections.
“It’s an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and pollster based in Gainesville, Florida. “The politics of it are dangerous for the GOP.”
In previous elections, Republicans benefited from social issues being on the ballot. During President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, 11 states voted on gay marriage bans. Karl Rove, Bush’s top strategist, denied engineering the ballot drives, while acknowledging the importance of social issues in fueling Republican turnout.
The architect of Florida’s medical marijuana initiative, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, employs Charlie Crist, 57, the leading Democratic candidate for Florida governor, and serves as an adviser. No Democrat has won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994. Crist held the office for four years, ending in 2011, as a Republican. He later switched parties.
Morgan -- who runs one of the country’s largest personal injury law firms and has hosted fundraisers for President Barack Obama -- said he has contributed more than $3 million to the pot effort so far. He said he’s planning to be a top fundraiser for Crist.
Activists hoping to put the question of legalizing medical marijuana before voters have collected about 1 million signatures, said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of the People United for Medical Marijuana and a Democratic strategist.
The Morgan-led group, created to support the Florida initiative, needs to have about 683,000 signatures verified by election supervisors by Feb. 1 to qualify. As of yesterday afternoon, 414,075 signatures had been verified by the state. Pollara said he’s confident the group will get enough.
Morgan, 57, says his roles in the governor’s race and medical marijuana proposal are unrelated. He said he hasn’t advised Crist -- a former governor, attorney general, education commissioner and state senator from St. Petersburg who supports medical marijuana -- to campaign on the issue.
Morgan likened his financial backing of the ballot initiative to philanthropic causes he’s supported in the past. Both his father, who died from cancer, and brother, a quadriplegic, used marijuana for pain.
“I’ve seen it work, I know it works,” said Morgan, who hired Crist at the Morgan & Morgan law firm after the former Republican governor lost a 2010 U.S. Senate race to Marco Rubio. Crist ran as an independent in that contest.
Morgan’s law firm could benefit from having Crist in the governor’s office, with veto power over legislation unfavorable to trial lawyers. Republicans and business groups have moved to crack down on trial lawyers in recent years.
Republicans say Morgan is trying to manipulate voter turnout in the November election to favor Crist in a state with a history of close contests. Obama carried Florida in 2012 by less than 1 percent of the vote, and Scott won in 2010 by 61,500 votes out of 5.3 million cast.
“It’s a pretty transparent ploy,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who once worked for Crist and now supports Scott, 61, a former health-care executive.
Patton called the marijuana initiative “extremely well calculated” and said it could be a “game changer” for the 2014 election, offsetting the advantage Florida Republicans typically have in years with no presidential race. Republicans in Florida and elsewhere have performed best in such years, as Democratic-leaning young voters and minorities have stayed home.
Democrats also see the marijuana initiative as a potential magnet for votes in November, said state Senator Jeff Clemens, a Democrat from Lake Worth, Florida, who has tried unsuccessfully to pass medical marijuana legislation.
“It’s clear Democrats are very supportive and Republicans are split down the middle on this, but independents are overwhelmingly in support of medical marijuana,” Clemens said.
As governor, Crist approved increased penalties for marijuana possession. Last year, he said he supports the proposed ballot measure to help those in need of pain relief.
Kevin Cate, a Crist spokesman, downplayed the impact the marijuana initiative may have on turnout. He said the issue will benefit Crist by highlighting his compassion for people suffering from disease.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz declined to say if Scott supports the medical marijuana proposal, only saying that the governor “does not support illegal drug use.”
The issue could prove appealing to younger voters.
In 2012, voters under 30 made up a higher share of the vote in Colorado and Washington -- states with marijuana initiatives on the ballot -- than the 19 percent national average, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, deputy director at Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, which studies youth voting.
In Colorado, which this month became the first state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use, youth voter turnout increased in 2012, bucking the national trend, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. The ballot initiative to legalize marijuana -- a position polls show is most popular among young voters -- is the most probable explanation, she said.
The push to decriminalize marijuana is gaining traction nationally. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 8 said he would take executive action to allow as many as 20 hospitals to dispense medical marijuana in the third-largest state. Later this year, Washington will follow Colorado to become the second state starting legal sales of marijuana for recreational use by adults.
In addition to Washington and Colorado, 18 other states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.
Pro-legalization groups like the Marijuana Policy Project are working to expand approval, said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Washington-based organization. The group will push for marijuana ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada and Oregon by 2016, Fox said.
Fifty-five percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Jan. 7. In Florida, 82 percent of voters support decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes, according to a November poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Only 16 percent opposed it.
Crist, who fled the Republican Party in 2010, became a Democrat in 2012 and endorsed Obama for re-election at the party’s convention that year, leads Scott 47 to 40, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Nov. 21.
The state Supreme Court is considering a request by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Republican leaders of the state legislature to strike down the ballot proposal. In court filings, Bondi, 48, said the ballot language misleads voters about its scope.
The proposal would legalize medical marijuana use for diseases such as cancer and glaucoma, as well as for “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks.”
Bondi has argued that the“other conditions” clause is a misleading “catchall” that “would allow marijuana in limitless situations.”
The court will rule on whether to strike down the ballot initiative before April 1.
If approved, Pollara’s group will not only collect signatures to get the pot measure on the ballot, he said. His group will help get pro-marijuana voters to the polls.
“If there are other candidates out there that are supportive of medical marijuana -- whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Communists or Klingons -- we will work with them to make sure our voters are their voters and vice versa,” Pollara said.