State Supreme Court OKs ballot language after well-paid canvassers submit 1.1 million signatures

Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report

Florida residents will vote on whether to allow medical marijuana Nov. 4, thanks to an investment of close to $4 million from trial lawyer John Morgan.

The Florida Supreme Court decided Monday that proposed language offered by Morgan and the United For Care Campaign is suitable for state ballots.

Justices voted 4-3 in favor of medical marijuana campaigners and against state Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, who said the proposal was misleading. Bondi argued the proposed initiative would lead to de facto legalization and "allow marijuana in limitless situations."

The majority of judges found "[t]he proposed amendment has a logical and natural oneness of purpose — namely, whether Floridians want a provision in the state constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana, as determined by a licensed Florida physician," according to The Associated Press. They found it was not misleading.

If approved by voters, the proposal would allow doctors to determine whether an illness is severe enough to qualify a patient for a state-issued medical marijuana card. Cardholders would be able to purchase pot from state-regulated dispensaries, but the cards would need renewal after two years.

The court ruling is the latest triumph for Morgan's team, which turned in more than 1.1 million signatures for validation by county election officials.

On Friday the state Division of Elections recorded 710,508 valid petition signatures – clearing the 683,000 requirement for ballot access – out of  11.8 million registered Florida voters.

Morgan, whose father used marijuana to cope with cancer before he died, employed hundreds of canvassers to clear the signature threshold.

Canvassers were paid between $1 and $4 for every signature they collected, campaign manager Ben Pollara tells U.S. News, depending on the date and location of canvassing. Between July and late October, the campaign netted just 200,000 signatures and the remaining 900,000 were gathered in a final three-month sprint.

"We're obviously thrilled by the result from the court today," Pollara says. "It's a big day for Florida and a really big day for the hundreds of thousands of people out there who are suffering from debilitating diseases and medical conditions."

Polls suggest the state's voters will approve the proposal by a wide margin.

A Public Policy Polling survey conducted Jan. 16-21 found 65 percent support for legalizing medical marijuana versus 23 percent who oppose the proposal.

Pollara says "there's no such thing as a relaxed campaign" and his team is currently pivoting to re-orient the pro-medical marijuana campaign for the general election.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C., currently allow medical marijuana. State laws vary widely. In California, for example, it's relatively easy to acquire medical marijuana for ailments. In D.C., however, it's only available to a very limited pool comprising people living with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and severe muscle spasms.

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national pro-medical marijuana group, says the Florida proposal "is representative of what's going on across the country."

Hermes says the Florida law might be particularly beneficial because of the state's large population of retirees.

"These types of campaigns are expensive and they require a lot of capital," Hermes says. "It's great to see people like Mr. Morgan willing to make this happen."

Marijuana may also appear on other state ballots this year.

Alaska voters will likely see a measure to legalize recreational use of the drug and authorize state-licensed shops on Aug. 19 primary election ballots. Activists in Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., hope to collect enough signatures for November ballot access.