Pubdate: Mon, 08 Jul 2013
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2013 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Author: Zac Anderson


Kim Russell is not a hippie.

A devout Christian, Russell homeschools her children and drives them 
to play dates in a minivan. The 42-year-old is treasurer of a 
stay-at-home moms group and a member of her local Republican 
executive committee. She does not own any tie-dye clothes.

Still, the bumper sticker on Russell's Chrysler Town & Country can 
draw "interesting looks." Passing drivers sometimes smile or give her 
a thumbs up when they read that Russell wants to make medical 
marijuana legal in Florida.

The issue has been an obsession since shortly after Russell's father 
was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and she learned the drug may 
help control the symptoms.

Russell cashed out her retirement account and took on a second 
mortgage to finance a petition drive in 2009. She went to speaking 
engagements in pearls and a suit. It was the second push for a 
medical marijuana amendment in Florida in a decade.

Like the first, it failed for lack of resources. But Russell and 
others are betting the third time is the charm. They have reason to be hopeful.

This month medical marijuana proponents are starting the most 
organized effort Florida has ever seen to enshrine doctor-approved 
cannabis in the state's constitution.

Unlike past petition drives, this one will be well funded. Personal 
injury lawyer John Morgan -- famous for his "for the people" 
television and billboard ads -- is pledging to do "whatever it takes" 
to pass the referendum next year.

Momentum has been building across the country, with 19 states and the 
District of Columbia approving medical marijuana. Whether Florida is 
ready to become the first southern state to join that group remains unclear.

The bar for constitutional amendments is high: Successful campaigns 
are expensive and the petition drive has been slow to get going. No 
signatures have been gathered yet, and nearly 700,000 are needed by Feb. 1.

Meanwhile, critics are taking aim, pledging to challenge the 
referendum in court -- and in the court of public opinion. They argue 
full-blown legalization is the real end-game and the benefits of 
medical marijuana are oversold.

Some wonder if the campaign is more about electing Democrats in next 
year's election than helping sick people.

Russell, a libertarian-leaning Republican, says the issue is not 
about politics for her.

"It's freedom and it's also compassion," she said.

The activists

A handful of activists have championed medical marijuana in Florida 
over the last decade, keeping the issue alive in the face of 
political hostility or indifference.

Manatee County residents Robert and Cathy Jordan are among the 
leading voices on the issue.

The Jordans were in the spotlight recently after Manatee sheriff's 
deputies confiscated 23 marijuana plants from their Parrish home. 
Confined to a wheelchair, Cathy Jordan smokes marijuana cigarettes 
daily to alleviate the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or 
Lou Gehrig's disease.

Prosecutors dropped the case after the Jordans argued medical 
necessity, but the couple worries about future legal actions.

The Jordans still have a newspaper from March 2, 1998 featuring a 
picture of them collecting petition signatures on the causeway 
heading to Anna Maria Island.

Most people ignored them.

"People would ride by and give you the peace sign but they wouldn't 
sign," Robert Jordan said. "We sat there for days, Cathy in the 
wheelchair, but people wouldn't sign the paper. The people who did 
stop, most of them had sick people in their family and realized it 
was a medicine."

That personal connection is what unites many people who strongly 
support marijuana for medical use.

Port Charlotte resident Patricia Montgomery, 69, said she saw how 
marijuana helped a quadriplegic friend. It bothers Montgomery that 
her friend's wife -- a woman in her 60s -- has to risk "getting 
picked up and put in the clink" to help her husband.

"It puts people in a very bad situation when they should just be able 
to get a prescription," said Montgomery, a semi-retired physical therapist.

Morgan said he, too, was convinced of marijuana's medical efficacy 
after seeing the drug help his dying father, who was stricken with 
esophageal cancer and emphysema.

"It was a very painful, stressful, death and it gave him relief," Morgan said.

Morgan's financial support and political connections are described by 
many activists as game changing.

Pros take over

Russell had no political experience when she formed People United for 
Medical Marijuana in 2009.

She took her petition to concerts and other large events but never 
came close to gathering enough signatures.

"I was naive, no doubt about it," she said.

Russell was struggling to gain traction when political consultant Ben 
Pollara contacted her.

Pollara was Hillary Rodham Clinton's Florida fundraising chairman in 
2008. Last year, he ran a federal Super PAC supporting Democratic 
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

When the election cycle ended, Pollara used some of the leftover 
money for a medical marijuana poll that showed 70 percent of likely 
voters favor the issue. He showed the results to Morgan and the 
attorney agreed to provide financial support.

Pollara asked to take over Russell's group. She agreed.

"They bring professionalism, organizational skills, money, all the 
connections, just knowing how the political scene works," Russell said.

Renamed "United for Care," the group has an attractive website and 
little else. Most of its efforts have gone toward crafting a petition 
that can withstand a constitutional challenge based on Florida's 
"single subject" requirement for ballot initiatives.

The campaign

Florida law requires constitutional amendments to focus on a single issue.

Setting up a new regulatory framework for medical marijuana will 
touch on many aspects of state government, but Pollara believes it 
will pass legal muster.

"We feel like we've drafted it so there's only a single substantial 
impact," he said of amendment language, which was submitted to 
Florida's secretary of state for approval last week and is expected 
to be finalized and available for petition signatures within days.

Because opponents of medical marijuana often point to states like 
California, where loose controls have led to a free-for-all of 
clinics and patients with dubious ailments, considerable time went 
into crafting language calling for a tight regulatory system in Florida.

Explaining all of that succinctly in the 75-word summary and 12-word 
title that will appear on the ballot is also critical. The actual 
amendment is 2.5 pages, but most people will not read it.

"Those 12 words and 75 words are extremely important," Pollara said.

The emphasis on the ballot language has slowed the campaign start. 
With less than seven months to collect signatures, money will be critical.

Upwards of $3 million is needed to pay signature gatherers and much 
more for advertising.

The campaign raised $193,167 between January and March, with the bulk 
coming from Morgan. Second quarter fundraising reports are due 
Wednesday. Pollara said they will show results similar to the first quarter.

The big fundraising push begins this week.

"Most of our focus has been on drafting the new petition," Pollara 
said before predicting a huge third quarter fundraising haul.

Morgan has agreed to keep his checkbook open, but he is also hitting 
up other deep-pocketed sympathizers.

"Some very high-profile national people" have agreed to contribute, he said.

Yet as the campaign gains momentum, the involvement of Morgan, 
Pollara and other Democratic activists has raised concerns that the 
referendum is more about politics than patients.

Political animal

After 15 years of activism, Robert Jordan has been laughed at and 
written off by a lot of politicians.

This year, Republican lawmakers refused to hear a medical marijuana 
bill named after his wife.

So Jordan praises Morgan for bringing attention and resources to the issue.

But the disabled Vietnam veteran also worries about ulterior motives. 
Morgan is a "political animal" who may be angling to help his friend 
Charlie Crist -- the former Republican governor who worked at 
Morgan's law firm after leaving office -- regain the governorship as 
a Democrat, Jordan said.

"Come on now, a blind man can see what he's doing," Jordan said. 
"Nothing brings out the liberals and the independents like this issue."

Crist recently spoke in favor of medical marijuana, but Jordan is 
skeptical, noting his earlier tough-on-crime, "Chain Gang Charlie" 
reputation as a state lawmaker and attorney general.

Jordan is also worried that opposition to the issue could grow if it 
is perceived as a ploy to help Democrats. It should be a bipartisan 
endeavor, he said.

"Morgan's going to make it a political issue and Republicans are 
going to dig their heels in," Jordan said.

Morgan denies any hidden political agenda, saying he did not discuss 
the issue with Crist beforehand. He believes the referendum will have 
bipartisan appeal, noting it is a rare point of philosophical 
agreement with his conservative wife.

"My wife has spent most of our marriage canceling out every single 
vote I've ever made and we finally agree on something, which is 
medical marijuana," he said.

Social conservatives are already lining up against the issue, though. 
So are anti-drug groups.

"We think it's just a very, very bad idea," said Calvina Fay, 
executive director of the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America 
Foundation and the organization's lobbying arm, Save Our Society from Drugs.

Founded by influential Republican political donor Mel Sembler, Drug 
Free America organized opposition to the medical marijuana petition 
drive in Florida in the late 1990s. The group has waged similar 
campaigns around the country in recent years.

Fay says she will challenge the referendum at every step. She hopes 
to get it thrown off the ballot.

If it survives, Fay will make sure Floridians hear that marijuana is 
a "toxic weed."

She also plans to attack the petition drive as a pretext for full 
blown legalization, which only 40 percent of Floridians support 
according to the Pollara-commissioned poll.

"People with private agendas that want to be able to get high and do 
it within the law, that's not what truly sick people deserve," Fay said.

Many medical marijuana advocates do believe the drug should be 
completely decriminalized, but Russell is adamant the referendum "is 
not a stepping stone."

Russell's 67-year-old father is doing well. His tremors have not kept 
him from working.

But after hearing so many stories of people suffering, Russell is 
committed to seeing the campaign through.

"It's very personal for all of us," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom