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Heavyweights on opposite sides of medical marijuana fight forge unlikely friendship

Trial lawyer John Morgan — whose outsized persona is already etched onto Florida's consciousness — said medical marijuana has boosted his celebrity even higher.

At the Orlando airport last week, eight to 10 people stopped him between the plane and his car to thank him for bankrolling the constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, Morgan said. "Two or three wanted to have their pictures taken with me."

However, none of that hoopla surprised Morgan as much as an email that arrived three months ago from Nevada.

It came from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who had just donated $2.5 million to defeat Amendment 2 — instantly counterbalancing Morgan's wealth in the fight over medical pot.

"I was stunned,'' Morgan said. "He told me that I was all wrong.''

With his typical thick skin and glib patter, Morgan was delighted to respond — setting off an ongoing email exchange that now has the two titans on a first name basis, and a possible face-to-face meeting next month in Las Vegas.

"I like him a lot. He's a self-made man,'' said Morgan, 58. "He's is one of the most generous men on the face of the earth.''

Adelson, 81, did not respond to requests for comment on his marijuana stance or the emails he and Morgan have exchanged.

But Adelson's background provides a glimpse into what may have motivated one of the world's richest people to jump into the medical marijuana fray.

In 2005, Adelson's 48-year-old son Mitchell died in Fort Myers. Adelson's wife Miriam told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that her stepson, a long-time heroin and cocaine addict, overdosed.

Miriam Adelson is an Israeli-born physician who specializes in addiction. She champions methadone as a treatment for opiate dependence. Her husband belongs to an association that helps drug victims, she told Haaretz, though talking about addiction "is very painful for him.''

Morgan has not brought up the son's overdose in the emails, but imagines that Adelson "has suffered the ultimate suffering,'' he said. "I think all our prayers are, 'Please don't take my children before me.' ''

In Adelson's first email, he referred to Morgan as an "activist lawyer." Morgan said he now signs all his messages as "AKA activist lawyer."

Morgan plans a Las Vegas business trip soon, he said. Adelson invited him to drop by and "if he is in town, I am going to see him," Morgan said.

The two men have exchanged four emails to date, and so far "I haven't convinced him. He hasn't convinced me,'' Morgan said.

Pro-cannabis blogs took Adelson to task for opposing Amendment 2 because an Israeli study partly funded by Adelson's foundation indicated that anti-inflammatory compounds in marijuana could effectively treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

The researchers had treated mice with MS-like systems with THC and CBD, the two most common chemicals in pot. According to Morgan, Adelson questioned whether the same result would apply to humans. "He wrote me that he doesn't have mice and rats as pets,'' Morgan said. "He has dogs and cats.''

Adelson's $2.5 million donation went to Drug Free Florida Committee, a political action committee launched in March by St. Petersburg resident Mel Sembler.

Sembler and his wife, Betty, are longtime antidrug advocates and, like Adelson, major benefactors of Republican Party causes.

State records show that Drug Free Florida has collected 26 donations through July. The second largest came from the president of Publix Super Market Charities, Carol Jenkins Barnett, whose family trust gave $322,000. In a statement, she criticized the amendment for being written "much too broadly" and warned that it would "usher in an unprecedented era of legalized marijuana."

Morgan's group, United for Care, had collected 5,735 separate donations. Though a few dozen five-figure donations came from companies interested in the marijuana business, most came from individuals sending in $5 to $100.

Morgan spent almost $4 million on the petition campaign to get Amendment 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot, but has yet to put any of his own money into passing it.

United for Care now has about $500,000 on hand, compared to $2.7 million for Drug Free Florida, but Morgan said he has $5 million in commitments from major sources outside the state and is not worried about being outspent.

Neither side has amassed the kind of cash that a full-fledged statewide TV campaign requires. That costs about $3.9 million a week, said David Beattie of Hamilton Campaigns, a Democrat leaning consultant.

Getting a pot message out may prove even more expensive if gubernatorial candidates Rick Scott and Charlie Crist saturate airways leading up the vote, Beattie said.

"When a lot of people are talking, you need to talk louder to get the same effect.''

With the campaign heading into the home stretch, Morgan said United for Care is focused on getting out the vote. The group has constructed a database of 180,000 supporters and will be reminding them to vote. A colorful bus has been ordered to tour the state, urging people to sign up for absentee ballots.

Some of Morgan's law firm ads will soon mention the medical marijuana fight as well, he said. He plans billboards in Central Florida and regional television ads targeting specific voters in specific counties — though he declined to identify them.

"Nobody buys more advertising in the state of Florida than me,'' he said. "I know the groups I need to reinforce, and I know what I need to tell them.''

Adelson bankrolled Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, then gave tens of millions of dollars to nominee Mitt Romney. He also gave nearly $1 million to Florida Republican candidates and PACs during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

So far this year, Adelson has made only two forays into Florida politics, according to the Division of Elections — $2.5 million to fight Amendment 2 and $6,000 to the Republican Party.

Representatives of Drug Free Florida did not respond to request for comment about their campaign plans.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Carol Jenkins Barnett is president of Publix Super Markets Charities. A story Saturday about the medical marijuana ballot measure gave an incorrect title.

Heavyweights on opposite sides of medical marijuana fight forge unlikely friendship 08/15/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2014 2:05pm]
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