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Pot Back In Political Spotlight In Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Voters next November will almost certainly have the chance to again decide whether Florida should legalize medical marijuana, after narrowly rejecting an almost-identical proposal a year ago.

A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that nearly 90 percent of Florida voters support allowing adults to use medical marijuana. Numerous other surveys in Florida and across the country consistently show that a majority of voters endorse medical marijuana for sick and dying patients.

And voters aren't the only ones who've warmed up to the once-sticky issue.

The state's Republican-dominated Legislature also appears to have evolved, perhaps more because of politics than pot.

With such broad public support, "there's very few people that are going to die on that hill anymore," Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson told The News Service of Florida.

"They've just basically decided this isn't a threat at the level that justifies having a massive political ground war over," he said.

Florida lawmakers last year legalized types of cannabis that purportedly don't get users high but are believed to reduce life-threatening seizures in children with severe forms of epilepsy.

But before the seeds of the state's new marijuana industry have sprouted, legislators began moving forward with an effort to legalize full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients. A measure sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who was instrumental in the passage of the 2014 low-THC law, would expand another law --- known as the "Right to Try" law --- to include marijuana for dying patients. The bill is slated for a second committee vetting next week, and a House version also is filed for the 2016 legislative session.

A separate proposal, backed by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, would legalize medical marijuana for a broad swath of patients and set up a regulatory system different from the one now in place for the non-euphoric cannabis.

The Legislature's focus on medical marijuana comes after lawmakers for years ignored the issue, brought to the forefront with the 2014 ballot initiative bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan.

"There've been some minds that have been changed. More than anything else, people are kind of sick of it," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for a political committee, commonly known as United for Care, backing the "Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions" ballot initiative.

Whatever the Legislature does --- or doesn't do --- likely won't have much impact on voters anyway, according to some experts.

Next year's legislative session wraps up in March, two months earlier than usual and nearly eight months before the 2016 elections.

By then, voters may have forgotten whatever steps lawmakers have taken, if any, to help sick patients. And, even if they haven't, it won't affect their attitudes towards the ballot item, said Tallahassee-based political consultant Steve Vancore.

One of legislators' primary arguments against the ballot initiative is that complicated matters like medical marijuana are best handled through state statutes rather than in more permanent constitutional changes.

"Voters don't think like that. They don't think, 'I really like this, but I'd rather have it as a law, not in the constitution,' " Vancore said. "Very, very ,very, very few voters view the process in that way. They read the language and they think, 'Is this a good idea or a bad idea,' and vote for it accordingly."

Unlike last year's midterm elections, the 2016 political scene in Florida will be dominated by a slew of legislative races, an open U.S. Senate seat and a presidential election in a swing state considered a necessary win for Republicans if they want to recapture the White House.

"Anybody who has a dollar to spend and says where am I going to put my dollar, I think opposing medical marijuana is the last place I'm going to put my money. There are so many other places to put it," Vancore said.

Next year's election is a long way off, but --- so far at least --- some of the proposal's loudest detractors have remained on the sidelines while the Florida Supreme Court weighs whether the initiative meets the requirements to make it onto the November 2016 ballot.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was one of the leading voices against it last year, opted not to oppose the wording of the revised ballot measure, prompting the court to scrap oral arguments on the initiative. If the court signs off, the Morgan-backed group will need to submit a total of 683,149 valid petition signatures to the state; it had submitted 365,577 as of Wednesday afternoon.

Florida sheriffs, who vigorously campaigned against the 2014 initiative, haven't taken a position on the proposal yet, according to Florida Sheriffs Association spokeswoman Nanette Schimpf.

"We plan to review all the various legislation at our winter conference that takes place in early January," Schimpf said.

A political committee funded largely last year by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and affiliated with St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation will likely continue its effort to kill the proposal, however.

"We do have great concern about a constitutional amendment that would not only make it easier to get marijuana but would also commercialize it and promote it in our communities," said Calvina Fay, the foundation's executive director.

After the amendment failed last year, Adelson --- who contributed at least $5.5 million to the political committee --- pledged to continue the crusade if the proposal made it onto the ballot again.

On the other side, proponents of the initiative are likely to take a different approach leading up to the election.

Morgan, the brash trial lawyer, became a flashpoint in the debate over the measure. Morgan, former Gov. Charlie Crist's boss, was accused of maneuvering the amendment onto the ballot to propel then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Crist's chances for victory.

Morgan insists that he threw his support behind the measure because of his father, who suffered from cancer and emphysema, and his brother Tim, who was partially paralyzed due to injuries sustained as a teenage lifeguard when he dove into concrete pylons while trying to rescue a swimmer. Joining his brother in promoting the proposal, the wheelchair-bound Tim Morgan openly spoke about his use of marijuana to curb the pain and muscle spasms caused by his injuries.

In one of many appearances across the state, John Morgan was caught on tape delivering a boozy, expletive-laced monologue to what appears to be a crowd of young supporters at a bar after a rally in the Lakeland area. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was one of the law enforcement officials who led the charge against the amendment.

Morgan has already dumped at least $1.8 million of his own money into the 2016 effort, but he may not play as high a profile this time around.

"Are we going to do the John Morgan bus tour again, this time around? Probably not," Pollara said. "I don't think John did anything to harm the campaign. He's the only reason the campaign existed and exists, but could he have done more to help it by presenting himself less or in a different way? Maybe."

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.