By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida Supreme Court approved a ballot measure that will ask voters whether or not to legalize medical marijuana, initiating a tough campaign in the upcoming gubernatorial election.
The court’s ruling threw out an attempt by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to halt the citizen-led initiative from getting on the 2014 ballot. Republican leaders had claimed the language on the proposed measure was misleading.
A bitterly divided state Supreme Court voted 4-3 on Monday to allow the medical marijuana initiative to go on the November ballot, saying it met all legal requirements.
If the petition is backed by 60 percent of voters in November, Florida would become the first Southern U.S. state to approve marijuana for medical use, joining 20 other states.
A Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey late last year showed 82 percent public support for the amendment if it was put on the ballot. A constitutional amendment in Florida requires 60 percent voter approval for adoption.
In an unsigned 44-page ruling, the high court held that the ballot title and summary wording “are not clearly and conclusively defective.”
It went on to say the proposed amendment gave voters “fair notice as to the chief purpose and scope of the proposed amendment, which is to allow a restricted use of marijuana for certain debilitating medical conditions.”
Among other things, The Tampa Bay Times reports, the measure could have other electoral implications:
The ballot measure could also affect the governor’s race, with Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposed to the measure and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in favor.
The amendment, which would allow marijuana use with a doctor’s recommendation and allow sale through state-regulated dispensaries, was proposed by United for Care, an advocacy group headed by Orlando attorney John Morgan, who employs Crist.
After a recent flurry of petition gathering, the group turned in enough valid signatures last week to force a vote. Court approval of the ballot — barely achieved with the 4-3 decision — was the final hurdle.
“I’m grateful that the court listened to our arguments,” Morgan said. “Next we will begin the campaign stage. You are going to see people rise up who are the parents and siblings and spouses of really sick people who know this works and you are going to see a grass roots movement like you have never seen before in Florida.”
Gov. Rick Scott said he opposes the measure. His Democratic opponents–Crist and former state Sen. Nan Rich– both support the measure.
Morgan reportedly spent about $4 million on petition gathering and said the campaign is ready to move on to the next phase: convincing 60 percent of voters to approve the measure.
Even though petition-gathering is a tough and expensive process, advocating or fighting for a measure is also expensive.
In 2012, many of Florida’s eleven ballot measures raised thousands of dollars, which included outside money.
This year’s medical marijuana measure is likely to do the same.
According to The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Massachusetts medical marijuana campaign recceived large amounts of outside money—particularly from a donor in Florida.
The Committee for Compassionate Medicine has touted itself as a “grassroots’’ effort, raising just over $1,000 from 30 donors, campaign finance records show.
But almost all the committee’s 2011 donations came from Peter B. Lewis [of Coconut Grove, Florida], chairman of Progressive Insurance and worth an estimated $1.2 billion. He contributed $525,000 of the $526,000 to the medical marijuana effort last year, with his 2012 contributions bringing his total donations to nearly $1 million, records show.
Again, the same pattern repeated itself this year, with Lewis contributing $465,000 to the medical marijuana committee and other donors $47,000. Of that, $25,000 came from a Washington, D.C.-based perfume fortune heir Henry Van Amerigen, with Hollywood TV producer Marcia Carsey chipping in another $10,000, according to state campaign finance records.
Lewis used medical marijuana to relieve pain after his leg was amputated, said committee spokeswoman Jennifer Manley of the Dewey Square Group. He has supplied millions to marijuana legalization efforts nationwide, campaign finance records show.
Lewis died this past November.
Morgan told the Times he expects thousands of people from all over will contribute to Florida’s campaign.
If the measure gets 60 percent of the vote this year, Florida will be the first southern state to pass a medical marijuana amendment. Already, 20 states have similar laws on the books.