Poll: 7 in 10 back Florida medical-marijuana plan, enough to possibly affect governor’s race

02/25/2013 3:48 PM

02/27/2013 9:20 AM

As many as seven in 10 Florida voters support a state constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana – more than enough to ensure passage and possibly affect the governor’s race — according to a new poll from a group trying to put the measure on the 2104 ballot.

Medical pot’s sky-high approval cuts across party and demographic lines, with Republican support the lowest at a still-strong 56 percent, the poll conducted for People United for Medical Marijuana, or PUFMM, shows.

The outsized support of Democrats and independents brings overall backing of the amendment to 70 percent; with only 24 percent opposed, according to the poll obtained by The Miami Herald.

Regionally, voters from the Miami and Orlando areas, among the most socially liberal in the state, want medical marijuana the most.

Non-Hispanic white women, blacks and Hispanics — all Democratic leaning — are the most-likely to back the measure and could be more likely to turn out to vote in two years if the medical marijuana makes the ballot.

“Supporters of the proposed amendment are less certain to cast ballots in the 2014 governor’s race,” David Beattie, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s pollster, wrote in an analysis of the poll of 600 registered voters taken Jan. 30-Feb. 3 by his firm, Hamilton Campaigns.

If it made the ballot, the measure would draw even more attention to Florida’s nationally watched 2014 election in which Gov. Rick Scott will fight for his political life.

“The proposal to allow the medical use of marijuana could provide a message contrast in the Governor’s race,” Beattie wrote, “heightening its effectiveness as a turnout mechanism.”

But, Beattie warns PUFMM in a memo, “don’t frame turnout efforts on the passage of the ballot initiative in a partisan way.”

To that end, former-Republican-operative-turned-Libertarian Roger Stone is planning to join PUFMM’s efforts to give it a bipartisan feel.

A longtime backer of marijuana legalization, Stone, a Miami Beach resident, is seriously considering a run for governor, where he’ll likely advocate for the initiative called “Right to Marijuana for Treatment Purposes.”

On the Democratic side, former Nelson and Hillary Clinton fundraiser Ben Pollara, of Coral Gables, is signing up as the group’s treasurer. Pollara said they’ve had discussions with Eric Sedler, managing partner at Chicago-based ASGK Public Strategies, which he started in 2002 with former White House advisor David Axelrod, still a President Obama advisor.

“The poll numbers were very encouraging,” Pollara said. “But it’s still a Herculean effort.”

That’s because Florida’s Legislature and voters have made it tougher than ever to get measures on the ballot by citizen petition. PUFMM needs to collect the valid signatures of 683,149 Florida voters. That could cost up to $3.5 million.

Right now, PUFMM has raised just $41,000 and has collected only 100,000 signatures, not all of which are valid. Some might be too old because they were collected as far back as 2009.

PUFMM’s Florida director, Kimberly Russell, said the group hopes that this poll and the top-notch campaign minds could turn things around.

“If we get this on the ballot, we have a great chance of getting this passed,” Russell said. “The more these pass in other states, the more people support it everywhere else.”

So far, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have medical-marijuana laws, including Republican-leaning states like Arizona.

Support appears to have increased in Florida since 2011, when a pollster for Republican Gov. Rick Scott — who opposes medical marijuana — surveyed the issue. Pollster Tony Fabrizio found support was strong in Florida, 57-38 percent.

But passing a constitutional amendment in Florida is tougher than in many states, in large part due to the 60 percent threshold.

“If there was organized opposition and $5 million, you could beat this thing,” said John Sowinski, a long-time Florida citizen-initiative consultant. “Absent that money and organized opposition, this would have a good chance of passing.”

Sowinski noted that the proposal might be perceived as too broad. While it specifies certain ailments — from Alzheimer’s to Crohn’s disease to HIV/AIDS — but it also allows marijuana for “other diseases and conditions when recommended by a physician.”

Indeed, when the amendment is summarized without specifying the diseases, support falls 8 percentage points to 62 percent, when the ballot language is summarized for voters. Still, that’s 2 percentage points above the threshold needed to approve a Florida constitutional amendment.

“The weakness in the proposed amendment isn’t helping AIDS patients get medicine to cope with pain,” he said. “It’s the language that’s so broad it could allow doctors to simply recommend marijuana for almost anything. Many people still want drugs controlled.”

A plurality of Florida voters, about 49, percent say pot should remain illegal while about 40 percent say it should be legalized, the poll shows.

The pollster, Beattie, warned in his memo that the campaign should frame the effort in medical and personal terms; don’t say “legalize” and don’t say “drug.”

But, in another question, voters tacitly favored outright legalization when asked if marijuana should be regulated and taxed like alcohol and cigarettes; 68 percent favored it and 27 percent opposed.

Asked if marijuana should be a “ticketed offense like speeding or running a red light,” 48 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved, which is on the cusp of the poll’s 4 percent error-margin.

By a 41-34 percent spread, voters said pot was safer than alcohol. Those who said marijuana was a “gateway drug” to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin narrowly edged those who thought it wasn’t, 44-46 percent.

Potential opponents like the pharmaceutical industry, could be a good foil for the amendments backers.

When asked if they believed the pharmaceutical industry wants to keep marijuana off-limits to sell prescription drugs, “though marijuana could be a safer and cheaper alternative to some treatments,” 52 percent agreed. Only 30 percent disagreed.

Support for medical marijuana is weakest in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

For two years, the Florida House refused to hear a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed people to vote on the issue.

The plan’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, said he plans this week to release conventional legislation — instead of a measure designed for voters — to decriminalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Clemens said legislators didn’t like the proposed amendment because it wasn’t specific enough. So now he’ll present specifics by way of a bill with fellow Democrat, Rep. Katie Edwards of Plantation. Edwards said the bill, with extensive regulations, will be called the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act, named for a Sarasota activist who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.

Another reason to avoid a constitutional amendment: “We’re coming off an election season where the Legislature put 11 proposed amendments on the ballot. And I didn’t want to add to the noise,” Clemens said.

Only three of the Legislature’s amendments passed. Many were printed in full, which helped create long early voting and Election Day lines that made Florida an election laughingstock.

One of the measures printed in full, which failed 48.5-51.5 percent, was designed as a way to oppose Obamacare, was put on the ballot by lawmakers who said they supported “healthcare freedom.”

This poll suggests that Florida voters support healthcare freedom when it comes to doctors dispensing pot.

A whopping 81 percent of voters said doctors should be able to recommend marijuana to patients without fear of arrest or loss of license, while 14 percent were opposed. The doctor item was the most-popular polled.

Not only does this poll show strong support in Florida, it indicates opposition is weak.

A fifth of those opposed said they’d change their mind and vote yes if a doctor recommended marijuana to a family member suffering from a “serious illness,” the Hamilton Strategies poll shows.

Attitudes might be evolving as Florida continues to draw retirees who came of age in the 1960s. An 18-year-old in 1967’s “Summer of Love” is 64 today.

“It’s like taking a magic pill,” a medical-marijuana-smoking Boca Raton retiree told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last year for a story on the rise of “senior stoners.”

“I can have a crappy, crappy day and I take one toke and in less than three minutes I’m leveled out and feel wonderful,” the 70-year-old woman said.

“Florida is changing,” said Roger Stone, the libertarian consultant to PUFMM who might run for governor. “But one thing remains the same: We have a lot of older voters. And a lot of those older voters don’t want the government making their healthcare decisions.”

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