By Zac Anderson
July 8, 2013
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.
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 naïve, 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.
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.
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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