A petition campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Florida has gathered enough signatures to put the issue on November's general election ballot.
Just after noon Friday, county elections officials had validated 710,508 signatures — enough to force a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the growth, sale and possession of marijuana for medical uses.
The Florida Supreme Court could still reject the ballot language — and any vote along with it — but organizers expressed jubilation Friday that an expensive, last-minute push at least fulfilled the signature requirements for citizen-initiated amendments.
"I've spent $4 million, hired the best legal minds in the state of Florida, rallied my army of angels and collected more than 1.1 million signatures in five or six months,'' said Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who took over a small, grass roots petition campaign last year and gave it the clout to get on the ballot.
By law, constitutional amendment campaigns for 2014 require signatures from 683,149 registered voters. Morgan's group, United for Care, added more than 50,000 signatures on Friday to exceed that mark.
Morgan, who has paid about three-quarters of United for Care's expenses, said the petition drive cost twice as much as he had planned, largely because signatures lagged by December and the campaign had to gear up.
By paying professional collectors as much as $4 a signature, United for Care began dumping hundreds of thousands of petitions on beleaguered county elections officials. At the 1.1 million mark, the campaign shut down two weeks ago, then waited to see how many signatures actually came from registered voters.
The rejection rate ran about 30 percent — typical for large petition campaigns. Still, the Florida Division of Elections reported 50,000 new signature validations on Friday, putting the total over the top.
The campaign also met its other requirement: hitting signature targets in at least 14 of Florida's 27 congressional districts.
The Tampa Bay area proved to be fertile ground: 165,042 valid signatures came from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, nearly one-fourth of the statewide total.
Save Our Society from Drugs, a St. Petersburg advocacy group, downplayed the significance of Friday's signature count.
"This really doesn't change anything,'' said executive director Calvina Fay. "We are still waiting to hear from the Supreme Court about the ballot language. We believe the language is misleading and are hopeful that the justices will rule soon.
"This also doesn't change the fact that the initiative is riddled with loopholes that would create de facto legalization in our state. We believe that if this gets to the ballot, Floridians will vote wisely and reject it."
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Constitutional amendment proposals in Florida require 60 percent of the votes cast to pass, but polls show widespread support for medical marijuana.
The measure also could affect the governor's race. Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposes medical marijuana, while former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — the presumptive Democratic candidate who works at Morgan's law firm — favors it.
In the Legislature, the Republican majority leadership has so far squelched attempts to legalize medical marijuana by statute.
That could change this year with a bill to legalize Charlotte's Web, a cannabis strain that seems to help children with seizure disorders without getting them high. The idea has garnered some Republican support, but some fear opening the door to wider use.
The Florida Supreme Court has until April 1 to decide whether United for Care's ballot language is confusing and illegal. If the court says it is, United for Care's signatures will be invalid. Any future ballot initiatives would have to start from scratch and could not come to a vote until 2016 at the earliest.
Contact Stephen Nohlgren at firstname.lastname@example.org.