Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Medical pot vote’s failure has many fathers

The email’s subject line was simple: “How Florida beat Amendment 2.”

Issued last week by the opponents of medical marijuana, the email was billed as a “must-read analysis by No on 2 General Consultant Tre’ Evers,” who took more than 2,000 words to explain some of the tactics and strategy that spelled doom for the proposed constitutional amendment.

Here’s Evers:

Some pundits say poor amendment wording caused Amendment 2’s demise. Others say the Amendment’s lead sponsor committed a series of gaffes, or that the proponents’ campaign committed a series of forced and unforced errors. Others have simply said that opponents ran a better, more disciplined campaign. As is usually the case, there was no single silver bullet, but a combination of these and other factors that led to Amendment 2’s defeat.

It’s tough to argue with that conclusion or nearly all of the points in the memo. When a GOP consultant of Evers’ considerable skills speaks, political insiders listen.

But reader beware.

The analysis isn’t a straightforward, dispassionate study of the X’s and O’s of how the amendment lost. Instead, the memo is one of the first volleys that Florida’s Republican establishment is firing at the proposal if it winds up on the 2016 presidential election ballot. Like many a campaign statement, the analysis glosses over a few key facts.

One number is completely missing from the memo: 57.6 percent.

That’s the percentage of people who voted for medical marijuana. The amendment failed only because it didn’t garner 60 percent voter approval — the threshold for ratifying a Florida constitutional amendment.

It’s certainly understandable that opponents would fail to acknowledge that the proposal got such outsize support — more votes than any candidate on the ballot (Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater or Agriculture Commissioners Adam Putnam).

The backer of the amendment, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, noted how his proposal was more popular than any sitting politician today. So Morgan said he might try again, and he might also put a second amendment on the 2016 ballot that calls for outright marijuana legalization. He said Florida’s Legislature should just pass an expanded medical marijuana law.

There’s some precedent for that happening.

For years, the Legislature ignored medical marijuana. But, once Morgan’s proposal was headed to the ballot box, lawmakers reversed course and passed a scaled-back proposal legalizing the medical uses of a strain of low-THC marijuana. The law, bound in red tape and court challenges, has yet to take effect.

Evers, in his memo, suggests legislators won’t be in a rush to expand medical marijuana:

False Conclusion 2: “Even though Amendment 2 failed to get the supermajority required for passage, it got majority support which should move legislators to approve a similar proposal.”

Reality Check 2: Legislators will look to their constituents. They will more closely look at primary voters within their districts — why? Because most legislative races are decided in primaries. Amendment 2 exceeded 60% in only 9 of Florida’s 67 counties. It will not be lost on Republican legislators (who now control 81 of 120 House seats) that conservatives opposed Amendment 2 by a 2-to-1 margin. As Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” And for most legislators, it makes little sense to them locally or within their primaries to liberalize drug laws.

Again, it’s tough to argue with Evers’ logic. But it’s also important to point out that the analysis ignores how medical marijuana was favored by a simple majority of voters in 52 of Florida’s 67 counties.

The 15 opposition counties are all strongly Republican — a sign of how politically polarized the issue became.

That’s partly Morgan’s fault. As a Democratic donor and the employer of Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist, Morgan was viewed with suspicion by Republicans. And he didn’t do much to attract bipartisan support for his plan.

Exit polls show how devastating Republican opposition was for the amendment: only 40 percent of self-identified Republicans said they voted for it, compared to 71 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.

In a September column about the politics of pot, I pointed out that the amendment would fail if GOP support fell below 42 percent even if Democratic and independent support stayed at 70 percent. The column also noted that opponents were essentially running against the amendment by using the same tactics and messaging common to a GOP primary campaign.

At the time, less than two months before Election Day, the opponents with the political committee Drug Free Florida were starting to outspend Morgan’s United for Care group on TV. Morgan, who months before made a do-whatever-it-takes pledge to get the amendment passed, didn’t follow through.

More than Morgan’s missteps, the defeat of the amendment can be credited foremost to Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who’s a friend of Drug Free Florida’s founder, Mel Sembler, a Republican donor like Adelson. Adelson gave Drug Free $5.5 million, more than 85 percent of its money. A spokesman said Adelson was just helping out a friend.

With that money in the final weeks, Drug Free Florida was able to out-advertise United for Care by a spread of almost 3 to 1.

Curiously, Adelson gets no mention in Evers’ memo, which praises Sembler. Evers’ partner is affiliated with an anti-casino group that opposes Adelson’s efforts to expand gambling operations in Florida.

Morgan said Sembler, 84, and Adelson, 81, might be dead in two years when he tries to put the measure on the ballot again.

“The people who voted against this — old people — many of them will be dead by the next election,” Morgan said.

“Why did we lose? We lost because turnout wasn’t what it could have been,” Morgan said. “Old people, 65 and older really did us in.”

Indeed, exit polls show that voters 65 and older opposed medical marijuana 38-62 percent. Every other age group voted for the amendment by 60 percent or more.

So really, the subject line for Evers analysis should read: “How Florida’s senior citizens beat Amendment 2.”

And judging by Evers’ and Morgan’s track records, that could easily be the headline in 2016.

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