The ballot proposal, which was approved by Florida's
Supreme Court on Monday, is so popular it could help Democrats
unseat the state's Republican Governor, Rick Scott, who is up for
re-election in November.
Democrats believe it could energize their base in a midterm
electoral season that generally results in low turn out, while polls
show even a majority of Florida Republicans support medical
Scott opposes the ballot initiative and is trailing in polls to his
main challenger, former governor Charlie Crist, who favors
legalization. That could set the stage for a political battle in a
state that is both a harsh enforcer of drug laws and a major pot
Florida's contest is the only gubernatorial election in a big swing
state in November's midterm elections, and a Democratic victory
would be a major blow to the Republican party heading into the 2016
Scott tried to block the ballot, arguing the wording was too vague
and could allow almost anyone to get their hands on the drug, but
the state Supreme Court approved it, nonetheless.
As many as 70 percent of registered Republicans in Florida favored
medical marijuana in a November Quinnipiac University poll. Support
was even higher among Democrats at 87 percent, and independents at
Republican political consultant Rick Wilson said the party should
"get out in front" of a rapidly evolving change in public attitudes
toward the drug.
"Americans have sort of made up their minds about a certain amount
of marijuana in society," said Tallahassee-based Wilson, citing
recent votes in Colorado and Washington state.
Florida's pro-marijuana push has been gaining ground as stories
emerge of what it can do for the sick.
Some Republican state legislators back the legalization of a
medicinal strain of marijuana, known as Charlotte's Web, that is
believed to reduce seizures in children with an extreme form of
Katherine Hsiao's seven-year-old son, Kael, suffers from Dravet
syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes dozens of seizures
daily, and must currently take a cocktail of drugs with harmful
Hsiao and her husband, who are Republicans, are considering moving
to Colorado where Charlotte's Web is legal, and might also switch
their vote if the law is not changed.
"If they refuse, it is because of a willful disregard for the
weakest of their constituents. And I would not want someone like
that in public office," said Hsiao.
Opponents argue that medical marijuana will not be dispensed in a
"The groups ... who have pushed for marijuana to be legalized have
painted the perception that marijuana is a harmless drug by saying
it's safer than alcohol," said Calvina Fay, director of the Drug
Free America Foundation.
Colorado, which this month became the first state with legalized
recreational marijuana, is one of 20 states across the country that
allow medical marijuana. New York, Washington D.C., Alaska and
Alabama, are also grappling with the issue.
Turnout among millennials goes down in midterm elections, said Susan
MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
But medical marijuana is seen by some political strategists as a
"very mobilizing issue to bring out young voters," she added.
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Florida has not elected a Democrat as governor since 1994, while
Republicans have also cemented their control over both legislative
Scott could choose to leave it to voters as a matter of personal
choice, rather than risk going up against marijuana ads featuring
war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or
cancer patients and parents of epilepsy sufferers.
Crist may also keep it at arms length, preferring not to be branded
as the "pro-pot" candidate.
COST OF ENFORCEMENT
The Florida Sheriffs Association voted almost unanimously this month
to oppose medical marijuana, saying it would lead to more crime and
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who heads the association,
described the initiative as a "fraudulent" effort to fully legalize
In 2012, law enforcement uncovered 540 marijuana grow houses in
Florida, more than any other state in the country. While medical
marijuana legalization will not stop the state's black market, some
law enforcement experts argue it could help reduce the violent crime
associated with illegal drugs and reduce the prison population
In 2010, Florida ranked third in the nation for marijuana arrests,
with 57,951, behind New York and Texas, according to the American
Civil Liberties Union. The number accounted for more than 40 percent
of the state's total arrests that year at a cost of $125.6 million.
Prominent Orlando attorney John Morgan, the former employer and a
longtime backer of Crist, has pumped $3 million into the ballot
effort that collected 1.1 million signatures.
He denies the marijuana initiative was planned by Democrats as an
"I never saw this as a get out the vote trick. I saw it as the right
thing to do," he said.
Morgan's father had emphysema and lung cancer and used marijuana in
the waning days of his life, he said. His brother was paralyzed at
18 after a lifeguard accident and also used it to get relief from
the pain of his injury.
"I'd like to say we were that smart," said Bob Poe, manager of
Crist's fundraising committee, about the dovetailing of the
governor's race with a liberal social issue. "But I think it's a
case of, when the moon's in the 7th house and Jupiter aligns with
Mars. A lot of things have come together."
(Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell
in Tallahassee and Barbara Liston in Orlando; editing by Andre Grenon)
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