Ahead in polls, medical marijuana poised for ad-war win

Medical marijuana is so popular in Florida that 78 percent of likely voters in Republican-controlled state Senate districts back the idea, according to a recent state GOP poll obtained by The Miami Herald.

The survey echoes two others last month that found medical-marijuana support ranging from 64 percent to 70 percent — results consistent with every major Florida public poll released in the past year.

And the favorable political environment for a proposed medical-marijuana constitutional amendment isn’t just limited to public opinion.

Well-funded organized opposition is lacking right now. And, in an ironic twist, the most high-profile opponent of medical marijuana — Gov. Rick Scott — could indirectly and unintentionally help the proposed amendment, strategists say.

To win reelection, Scott’s campaign is likely to trigger a mammoth $150 million TV ad war, which could reduce the supply of available commercial advertising time, drive up the price of commercials and therefore make it tougher for outgunned anti-drug crusaders to get out their message.

“In an environment such as that, message-penetration can be challenging for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money,” said Kyle Roberts, president of Virginia-based Smart Media Group, one of the nation’s premier political ad-buying firms.

The estimated $150 million that could be spent — $100 million from Scott and Republicans; $50 million from Democrat Charlie Crist — “can cause a lot of voter confusion when it comes to other issues on the ballot,” Roberts said.

Medical-marijuana opponents have one major advantage, however: It takes 60 percent voter approval — a high bar — to pass a constitutional amendment in Florida. That means just a minority of voters can defeat the proposal at the Nov. 4 polls.

Opponents say the amendment would lead to pot legalization. Proponents, pointing to the amendment’s text, say it legalizes medical marijuana for those who have “debilitating” ailments as determined by a physician.

So far, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana, most for medical reasons.

Florida attitudes have been changing along with the nation’s. In November, a Quinnipiac University survey found that 48 percent of registered voters favored legalization for adults and 46 percent were opposed.

The Republican state Senate district poll, conducted last month by the Tarrance Group, found that 47 percent of likely voters favored outright legalization and 48 percent opposed legalization. And voters strongly backed lighter prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

A major difference between the two polls: The Tarrance poll was in selected Republican-held state Senate districts where voters are more conservative; the Quinnipiac survey was a statewide survey that polled all types of voters.

Pollsters and pundits are at pains to say what’s causing the shift in attitudes, but they note that it’s happening with gay marriage, as well.

The Tarrance poll, for instance, showed that likely voters in the GOP Senate districts favored same-sex marriage by 54-39 percent — a cumulative 14 percentage-point shift since its last poll in April. And by 67-27 percent, voters said they supported giving homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to healthcare, emergency situations and property rights.

But the favorable sentiment concerning gay marriage is eclipsed by the change in perceptions over marijuana.

Despite the trends in favor of marijuana decriminalization in one form or other, some surveys show, the argument that medical marijuana leads to complete legalization can be a potent tool to defeat the proposed amendment.

But getting their message out will be expensive. It can cost a political candidate nearly $2 million a week to run enough statewide ads so that the average viewer sees them 10 times. For political committees, the cost of such a media buy can cost about double what it costs candidates, who get the lowest rates.

Also, because of the broad array of TV choices and channels, voters are tougher to reach and persuade nowadays, requiring ever-more sophisticated efforts to identify the right way and time to reach them.

Burning so much money in an ad campaign puts an emphasis on fundraising for political groups. And polls drive fundraising.

Add it all together — the lack of ad time, the higher costs and the popular polling for medical-marijuana — and anti-drug crusaders know they face a tough campaign.

But they’re still going to try, said Lana Beck, spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society From Drugs, the lead organizations opposed to the amendment along with law-enforcement agencies.

“We will be educating at the grass-roots level,” Beck said.

John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer funding and leading the effort through his group People United for Medical Marijuana, hopes the opposition stays that way.

“If this is a word-of-mouth campaign, a grass-roots effort, we win,” Morgan said.

Morgan has a secret weapon: the $20 million in TV ad time he reserves annually for his Morgan & Morgan firm, which employs Crist. Morgan said he’s prepared to swap out some of his firm’s airtime for medical-marijuana ads. The firm buys ads in the Orlando, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Naples-Fort Myers, Gainesville-Ocala and Tallahassee media markets.

Morgan, who spent $3.6 million of his own money getting the measure on the ballot, is raising funds from other donors, as well. The initiative campaign could cost $10 million more.

“It’s worth it. People want this,” he said, pointing to polls.

A January 2013 poll found medical-marijuana support at 70 percent. A Kitchens Group survey in July found 71 percent approval. Public Policy Polling surveys in October and this January, respectively, found 62 percent and 65 percent support. And Quinnipiac University’s poll in November found the highest support for the concept, 82 percent.

Results fluctuated depending on the sample size, methods used and questions asked.

One survey last month from a business interest, which shared its polling on condition of anonymity, asked voters the exact ballot language on medical marijuana and found 70 percent support. Another survey from another business interest that also confidentially shared its poll numbers found 64 percent support.

The surveys, along with the Tarrance Group poll for Senate Republicans, were conducted in the run-up to the 60-day lawmaking session that began Tuesday.

The Senate Republican study caused ripples in the Legislature when word spread that even voters in GOP-friendly seats favor medical marijuana by 78 percent, with only 14 percent opposed in the Tarrance poll.

For years, the GOP-led Legislature has blocked and even refused to hear bills on the topic.

But this year, as the Florida constitutional-amendment drive gained steam and poll after poll showed its popularity, some Republican lawmakers relented somewhat. They have backed a bipartisan bill that would legalize a strain of marijuana for people with severe epilepsy. Nicknamed Charlotte’s Web, the strain is supposed to be low in THC, the euphoric high-inducing chemical most commonly associated with recreational marijuana use.

The Charlotte’s Web legislation, however, doesn’t address other so-called “debilitating” ailments — such as cancer, AIDS or glaucoma — targeted by the constitutional amendment.

The Senate poll indicated that support for Charlotte’s Web stood at 79 percent in favor, 18 percent opposed — mirroring support for the broader medical-marijuana effort. Compared with a similar GOP Senate poll in April, support shifted a net 24 percentage points in favor of Charlotte’s Web.

Voters by 65-28 percent favored reducing prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and, by 78-15 percent, they supported prison-diversion programs for those convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Some Democrats, such as Miami state Sen. Dwight Bullard, want to legalize marijuana outright, as Washington and Colorado did.

That bill has a slim chance of passing in the Legislature. Even Morgan, a Democrat, opposes the Democratic legalization effort because, he said, it could be used as a political weapon by opponents who say the medical-marijuana amendment is a Trojan horse for recreational pot use.

Florida political consultant John Sowinski — who has led and defeated a number of high-profile ballot initiatives and might work against medical marijuana — says Morgan is right to be concerned about the legalization issue because it can hurt his amendment drive.

Sowinski said he believes the amendment can be beaten by persuading voters that it’s designed to trick them, that it’s “a masquerade ball, a loosey-goosey system for legalization that preys on people’s sympathies.”

Sowinski, though, acknowledges the proposal is popular now and that the “clutter” of ads in the governor’s race is a challenge.

“With the right message done the right way,” Sowinski said, “you can punch through the clutter of the other ads.”