Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Medical marijuana coming down to the wire

According to polls, medical marijuana has strong support in Florida. Whether it actually will come to a vote in November is far less certain.

A group pushing for a constitutional amendment figures it needs about 400,000 more petition signatures to get medical pot on the ballot, and it has only a month or so left to pull it off.

"It's a big lift. We don't have a lot of give,'' Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, said last week.

Orlando lawyer John Morgan, the campaign's public face and main financial backer, said Monday he may double the $1 million he has already spent, but still might not collect the required number of signatures in time.

"It's really out of my control,'' Morgan said. "I'm ready to pay for the gasoline to go faster. The question is: Can they go faster with the extra gasoline?''

Morgan said he is now kicking himself for suspending a paid petition gathering campaign for a month or so in the fall.

Though volunteers collect some petitions, paid workers are the backbone of most Florida amendment campaigns.

The campaign held off payments for a while, hoping that the Florida Supreme Court would decide quickly whether the ballot language meets constitutional muster.

Instead, the court did not hear oral arguments until last week and has until April 1 to rule. Meanwhile, the campaign lost valuable momentum, Morgan said.

"If I don't get it on the ballot and look back, I am going to blame myself for suspending it when I did.''

By law, 683,149 registered voters must sign petitions requesting a vote. As a practical matter, said Pollara, the campaign probably needs to turn in more like 900,000 to 950,000 signatures because election officials typically throw out a bunch. Names and birth dates don't match. People sign more than one petition. Signatures are indecipherable.

Though Feb. 1 is the official petition deadline, county election officials can take up to 30 days to verify a signature. That means any submitted after early January may not get counted if county election officials take the full 30 days.

The campaign began in July. As of early last week, United for Care had collected about 500,000 petitions, Pollara said. The Florida Division of Elections lists 140,933 as verified, reflecting the lag time between collection, verification at county election offices and recording with the state.

The Los Angeles firm of PCI Consultants is conducting the campaign and is bumping up production, Pollara said.

About 60,000 petitions were collected the last week of November, he said, and United for Care is shooting for 80,000 this week.

"We will be pretty darn close trying to pull this trick out of a hat,'' he said. "We are calling folks at statewide disease organizations, and they are going to try to find ways to get us petitions. We are having conversations with labor unions and political parties — mostly Democrats and Libertarians, but also Republicans. We are opening every door and turning over every stone.''

Most paid workers have earned about $1 a signature and have bolstered their income recently by simultaneously collecting petitions for a water and lands protection amendment.

With that campaign winding down, Morgan's group will now raise its medical marijuana pay to as much as $2 a signature, Pollara said, and is hiring as many workers as it can.

Paul Ecklund would welcome the raise. He stations himself outside the Pasco County Courthouse and collects 50 to 100 signatures a day.

Public buildings provide a lot of traffic, though the Pasco library, a good spot for a while, "is a pond that is pretty well tapped out,'' Ecklund said.

Publix and Walmart are fertile ground, he said, until workers come out to the parking lot "and chase you away.''

Ecklund favors medical marijuana. He has heard from a lot of people who said they know cancer patients who use it for appetite stimulation. But that's not why he stands out in the sun for eight hours.

"It's a job,'' he said.

Ecklund, 58, lives in New Port Richey, but many petition gatherers come from out of state, said Morgan, and he worries that the campaign may slow if they go home for the holidays.

If need be, he said, he will dangle money in front of county election officials to entice them to process petitions more quickly.

Some take the full 30 days that the law allows. Others are verifying signatures within a few weeks, an extra edge that could allow a petition submitted as late as mid January to get counted.

The campaign must pay a 10 cent fee for each signature it submits, Morgan said.

"Maybe I will tell them I will pay them 20 cents if they can verify them more quickly. Maybe 30 cents.

"I'm used to winning, but this is tough.''

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