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Florida has ‘all-time high’ support for recreational pot, but will it be on the ballot?

Marijuana plants grow in a greenhouse environment in this room at the Curaleaf Homestead Cultivation Facility. This environment controls the amount of natural sunlight and artifical light the plants are exposed to, as well as the temperature.

With medical marijuana dispensaries becoming commonplace in Florida, will recreational pot soon be on the shelves, too?

The people behind the effort to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot say yes.

That optimism is reflected in the 65 percent of Florida voters polled recently by Quinnipiac University who support the idea, a number the polling company noted is at “an all-time high.” National trends are running the same way.

But the push for recreational marijuana, also known as adult-use pot, is still far from a done deal. A similar measure to get medical pot on the ballot in 2016 — when it passed easily — was polling much higher the year before the vote, at about 84 percent approval.

The ballot box is different from a public poll. Medical marijuana failed the first time around in 2014, missing the required 60 percent approval by just two percentage points, even though a Quinnipiac poll from 2013 showed 82 percent approval by Floridians. That’s far stronger than current support for recreational pot.

A look at how medical marijuana is grown, processed and sold at Curaleaf, one of Florida's larger medical marijuana companies. Robert Levy, director of cultivation at Curaleaf, offers a tour of the high tech grow house.

One other factor: John Morgan. The brash personal injury attorney from Orlando who largely bankrolled the state’s medical marijuana ballot amendment isn’t putting his cash behind the latest push — yet.

He says he thinks the odds of recreational use winning approval in Florida this election cycle are “in the short run, not good. Because I cannot see this Legislature enacting that. I don’t see anybody doing a constitutional amendment in 2020. But I think ultimately, for all the states, it will be legal.”

Getting medical pot passed was a different story, he said. The praise he heard for his efforts persuaded him it would pass.

“I was kind of a one-man band out there and I thought I would have more help and I didn’t get any help, but so many people were coming up to me and thanking me, but I just kept going. And now that it’s all said and done, I think it’s some of the best money I ever spent. ... I don’t go anywhere in Florida that someone doesn’t walk up to me and thank me.”

Even without Morgan’s buy-in, the effort to get the issue on the 2020 ballot is at least 64,000 signatures deep, thanks to Regulate Florida, which is leading the charge. Still, at roughly this same point in 2015, the medical pot group United For Care had 100,000 signatures.

To make it on the ballot, a group needs to gather a little more than 76,000 valid signatures and submit them to the Florida Supreme Court to review the ballot language. If the court approves the language, which calls for adults over 21 to have the right to grow and use cannabis, the next step is to gather a minimum of 766,200 signatures to put the question on the ballot for voters across the state.

That’s expensive. According to Michael Minardi, an attorney from Tampa who is the campaign manager for Regulate Florida, the effort will cost about $5 million. And that’s after a new law approved by the Legislature this year increased the cost of gathering signatures for citizen ballot drives.

Minardi said the effort is “doing well” financially so far, but money will be key moving forward. “We don’t have any major backer at this time,” he said. “Funding comes from multiple sources, including Minardi Law.”

He said the group has gotten donations from Sunshine Cannabis, a Trulieve brand. Trulieve is the medical marijuana company with the most dispensaries in Florida.

Dr. Michelle Weiner is a South Florida pain doctor who prefers to prescribe her patients medical marijuana instead of opioids. One of her patients, Paul Messer, says medical marijuana has helped reduce his tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease.

Other pot companies have also donated, Minardi said, along with some applicants who want to get licenses to operate in the state.

“We are confident and believe that if we pass the Supreme Court review, more and more entities will want to get on board,” he added.

The push for a vote on recreational use in Florida by 2020 follows a rapid shift in U.S. voters’ views on marijuana. In 1995, a quarter of Americans approved of legalizing marijuana in some form, according to a Gallup poll. By 2018, that number had climbed to 66 percent.

Today, 33 states have legal medical pot. Eleven of those states — with Illinois set to join the pack in January — have also legalized recreational marijuana. It remains illegal at the federal level.

And the shift in Florida has followed the same trend lines.

A Quinnipiac poll from Florida in 2013 found only 48 percent of voters supported recreational marijuana. Six years later, approval has jumped 17 points. Another Florida poll, from the University of North Florida in March, found a rate of approval of 62 percent, nearly matching the 65 percent approval in that most recent Quinnipiac poll.

Michelle Terrell, Florida director of sales and marketing for medical marijuana company Curaleaf, explains how to get a medical marijuana card in Florida.

But public opinion doesn’t always translate into government action. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, when recently faced with that “all-time high” polling support for adult use pot, said in June he still wouldn’t support recreational marijuana.

“Not while I’m governor,” DeSantis told the Capitol News Service. “I mean look, when that is introduced with teenagers and young people, I think it has a really detrimental effect to their well being and their maturity.”

State representatives have also attempted to legalize recreational marijuana by filing bills, but none have been successful. Democratic Reps. Michael Grieco and Carlos Guillermo-Smith, from Miami Beach and Orlando, respectively, saw their bill shot down last year. They plan to file another version of the bill in 2019, Guillermo-Smith confirmed.

Political opposition and poll numbers are why some of the state’s leading marijuana advocates prefer to keep the conversation focused on medical.

“I don’t see this Legislature actually doing anything when it comes to legalization in 2020. The best we hope is that they in fact realize there’s problems with the medical marijuana program, and will actually make some changes to better the program,” said Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a former medical pot lobbyist who’s made marijuana a cornerstone of her platform.

Copy of Curaleaf Cultivation 15 EKM.jpg
Young marijuana plants named, “Blue Dream,” grow under artificial light in one of the many grow rooms at th Curaleaf’s Homestead Cultivation Facility. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

And the medical marijuana business is good. In the last year, Florida’s market has nearly doubled.

As of late June, Florida had roughly 230,000 patients — 100,000 of whom have signed up in the last year — and 139 dispensaries, 100 of which have opened since last year.

Brady Cobb, a medical marijuana lobbyist and cannabis investor in Washington, D.C., and Florida, has a unique perspective on the issue. His dad, Bill Cobb, was a pot smuggler in the 1970s in North Florida. He believes the medical pot industry will be big and — although full legalization is still a ways off — the momentum is on the side of legal pot across America.

“Once California went full rec, the genie’s out of the bottle,” he said. “Once you got rec in Michigan ... Ohio’s now wide open. Florida’s wide open. Gas pedal down. It’s not 20,000 patients anymore. It’s mainstream.”

It’s the same for Fried, the only Democratic statewide officeholder in Florida. She thinks recreational marijuana is on the horizon, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, even if the federal government continues to classify pot as a schedule 1 drug with “high potential for abuse.”

“I’m hoping that with education and more public support that we’ll get there,” she said. “Otherwise, it may need to be a constitutional amendment, and not have to wait for the federal government.”

Morgan, to date the most powerful pro-pot voice in the state, echoes that view. It’s not if, but when.

“For Florida, you know, it’s like dominoes. They click slowly and they start clicking faster and then all of a sudden they run, and you have a tipping point,” he said. “And that’s where we are with marijuana in America.”

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.
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