State Politics

New petition to legalize recreational pot in Florida goes public

A new effort to legalize recreational pot in Florida is underway. This time, it’s being backed by the medical marijuana industry.

The initiative, dubbed Adult Use of Marijuana, registered with the state Thursday to start collecting signatures in hopes of getting the proposal on the 2020 ballot, a spokeswoman said. The language is still being processed by the Division of Elections.

The political committee behind the effort, Make it Legal Florida, registered with the state earlier this month.

According to the group’s proposed ballot language, the amendment would allow adults 21 or older to have, use, purchase and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and paraphernalia.

It also gives existing medical marijuana treatment centers in the state the right to sell marijuana and other accessories if clearly labeled and enclosed in childproof packaging. The language prohibits advertising or marketing marijuana to people under 21 and limits use to private places.

Make it Legal Florida is chaired by Nick Hansen, a lobbyist for a California-based medical marijuana chain, MedMen, and former adviser to Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg.

MedMen currently has one store in West Palm Beach but is set to open nearly a dozen more this year, including sites in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West.

The effort isn’t the only one of its kind underway. Advocacy group Regulate Florida, chaired by Tampa attorney Michael Minardi, has already gathered enough signatures on a proposal to trigger a judicial and financial review.

His language similarly limits marijuana use to people 21 and older, but includes growing marijuana as well. The language mandates that the state adopt a new licensing structure for marijuana growing, manufacturing, testing and selling, and does not mention existing retailers as part of the proposal. It also gives local governments authority to regulate if the state “fails to timely act.”

Minardi said as a dedicated marijuana attorney, he is disappointed with holes in Hansen’s version of the language. He said it doesn’t address home cultivation, protections for employees and closes the market off from “mom and pop“ businesses.

“Whether I will ultimately support the amendment is up to the people of Florida,” he wrote in a text message. “If people want to send a message to us and the people behind the new amendment, the best way to do so is to donate to [us].”

Cheering from the sidelines is Orlando personal injury attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled the initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state. While he has kept largely quiet on the issue this year and is instead focused on his own initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026, he wrote on Twitter: “I believe that #marijuana should be legal. I think we have time and I think there is money to get it done. I already have the minimum wage signatures.” He signed the tweet with his self-declared nickname: “#PotDaddy.”

He said Minardi has the right idea but not enough money to make it happen.

“This is going to need $5 million, quick,” he said, pointing out the lack of funding from industry stakeholders.

Morgan added that Hansen’s effort has the lobbyists and business owners on their side. This time, he’ll be watching from afar.

But not too far.

“Last time I did, I was the lone trombone player marching down the street,” he said. “This will be the University of Miami marching band with trumpets and tubas and snare drums. … I’ll just be one trombone player, marching with them.”

He said, “Nikki Fried will be the drum major.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who won the Democrats’ only statewide seat on a pro-cannabis platform, is a likely ally in the fight. While she is chiefly focused on improving the state’s medical marijuana program and growing the hemp arm of her office, she has expressed support for Floridians’ right to vote on recreational marijuana on the 2020 ballot.

Ben Pollara, the political consultant who steered the campaign to bring a full-blown marijuana market to Florida, said the campaign is a long shot, given the timing.

At least 766,200 signatures must be submitted to the secretary of state on or before Feb. 1, 2020.

He said Hansen’s interest in a ballot initiative has been an open secret in the industry but that the company is a financial house of cards.

“This will be damn near impossible if they want to loop other actors in the industry,” he said, noting other steps groups take like polling, focus groups and lengthy conversations with attorneys. “You don’t just snap your fingers and legalize weed.”

Taylor Biehl, who lobbies for the Medical Marijuana Business Association, said the push to legalize was only a matter of time, and if John Morgan has something to do with it, “anything can be done,” even on a truncated timeline.

His partner, Jeff Sharkey, said positive polling and de-stigmatizing of the drug will help the push. He said he thinks Morgan’s staying out of the limelight is symbolic for the industry, too.

“Medical marijuana treatment centers are doing very well,” he said. “We all recognize that John said ‘you don’t need my money.’ ”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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