Politics

Top campaign donor vows to try again if Florida’s medical marijuana amendment fails

Florida medical marijuana honcho John Morgan hopes for a victory on Amendment 2 when polls close on Tuesday. But a loss may not end the campaign, Morgan told the Tampa Bay Times. As long as the vote is close to the required 60 percent approval threshold, Morgan said, he will try again in 2016.

“I plan to win this,’’ he said, saying his internal polls show it winning by a thin margin. “But if I lose a battle, I can damn sure still win the war.’’

Most of the $5 million or so that Morgan or his Orlando law firm spent on the amendment campaign went toward collecting more than 700,000 signatures to put the question on the 2014 general election ballot.

Until last week, Morgan said, he would not have considered another medical marijuana campaign.

“I had always told myself I wouldn’t spend this kind of money again,’’ Morgan said. But early last week, “I got to thinking I wouldn’t have to. I have 900,000 signatures and addresses’’ of people who signed the current petition. “I have 400,000 people who have communicated with us. This time I had to collect signatures in five months, next time I would have two years.’’

Next time would also be a presidential year, which should energize the youth vote, Morgan said. Younger voters — the strongest advocates for medical marijuana — typically turn out in higher numbers during presidential elections.

“This would be a day in the park,” he said in an interview with the newspaper on Friday.

Under Florida law, any group sponsoring a constitutional amendment designates a general election date, then must gather hundreds of thousands of signatures from registered voters to put it on the ballot. Then the Supreme Court must approve the ballot language.

To initiate another medical marijuana campaign, Morgan’s United for Care organization would have to repeat those steps.

Under Amendment 2, doctors would certify that patients with debilitating conditions could benefit from marijuana. Licensed dispensaries would sell it.

Recent polling on the amendment has been mixed. A poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and other media partners last week put medical marijuana approval at only 46 percent. SurveyUSA, a national robo-calling firm, reported support this month in the 51 to 52 percent range.

But a University of North Florida poll taken a few weeks ago measured 67 percent approval and Morgan said his organization has been tracking approval at 61 to 62 percent for the last few weeks.

If the vote “comes in the low 50s or high 40s, I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll never go down that road again,’ ’’ Morgan said.

But if the vote is within a few points of the required 60 percent, he said, he will crank up again in January.

One decision would be whether keep the present ballot language or alter it for strategic reasons, he said.

Opponents contend the qualifying conditions Amendment 2 describes are too loosely written. They say that minor ailments could be called “debilitating’’ conditions by unscrupulous physicians and pot mills like the infamous Florida prescription pill mills could result.

“Amendment 2 places no restrictions on the location of seedy pot shops,’’ Vote No On 2 says on its website. “Look for “pot docs” to spring up next to restaurants, schools, churches and supermarkets.”

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in January that “debilitating” conditions would be of a serious nature similar to cancer, chronic pain and other specific conditions listed in the ballot language. But the pill mill argument still resonated with many voters.

Likewise, opponents took the amendment to task for protecting doctors against civil suits or regulatory sanctions related to recommending pot — necessary because pot would remain illegal under federal law.

The court said that was a narrow protection covering only the act of recommending marijuana, and that doctors who also committed fraud or negligence could still be sanctioned.

Without such civil immunity, the court said, a medical marijuana system could not function.

Still, legal protections frequently put amendment supporters on the defensive. Morgan, a personal injury attorney whose firm sometimes sues physicians, joked Friday about the irony of him defending legal protections for doctors.

“I’ve wanted to lift every immunity the Legislature has ever given them,’’ he said.

Morgan said he would consult the amendment’s author — University of Florida law professor Jon Mills — about any ballot language changes.

But maybe the amendment would be best left as is, Morgan said. The Supreme Court has already validated the ballot language and would be unlikely to reverse that ruling.

Another strategic issue is how the Legislature might react to another marijuana amendment campaign, he said. Just as the Legislature approved the use of a noneuphoric strain of pot known as Charlotte’s Web for seizures this year, it might further widen the use of medical marijuana if faced with a 2016 amendment campaign, Morgan said.

Young voters turning out for medical pot would tend to favor the Democratic presidential candidate, Morgan said. Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature might try to defuse that by passing a medical marijuana law.

“There are two ways to win wars,’’ Morgan said. “By atom bombs, or Trojan horses. As long as you win, it doesn’t matter.’’

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at snohlgren@tampabay.com

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