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Group says it has enough signatures to put medical marijuana on Florida ballot

The people pushing for medical marijuana have all but shut down their petition campaign, saying they have collected enough signatures to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

United for Care, headed by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, announced Wednesday that it had collected more than 1.1 million signatures and had stopped paying people to gather more, except for a few more days in one county.

Elections officials — who typically reject a few hundred thousand signatures — are still processing the latest petition batches to see whether United for Care has indeed delivered the minimum 683,149 valid signatures the law requires.

But Ben Pollara, United for Care's campaign manager, declared victory Wednesday night on the organization's website.

"This is an enormous achievement,'' Pollara said. "Literally thousands of volunteers contributed their time, collecting petitions in the rain and heat, on their weekends and holidays.''

The state Division of Elections has until Feb. 1 to tabulate the final petition count. Beyond that, the petition campaign faces one last hurdle: the Florida Supreme Court.

State Attorney General Pam Bondi has argued that the proposed ballot language confuses voters and violates Florida's "single subject" requirement.

The court, which is still weighing the issue, must rule by April 1. If it rejects the ballot language, that will invalidate all of the petitions. Any further citizen initiatives would have to start from scratch, with new language. The earliest possible vote then would be in 2016.

The proposed amendment would allow people to buy marijuana at state-regulated dispensaries if a doctor attests that they need it for medical reasons. The amendment makes it clear that people could not legally grow their own. The Legislature would fill in other details about how the program would work.

Recent polls have indicated that voters strongly support some kind of medical use exception to state laws that prohibit the possession, cultivation and sale of pot. Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Federal authorities have said they will not prosecute people for medical use as long as they follow state laws.

St. Petersburg-based Save Our Society From Drugs has pledged to fight the medical marijuana initiative.

"Regardless of whether enough signatures have been collected, crude marijuana sold at pot shops is just not medicine, nor is it the way modern medicine is dispensed,'' said executive director Calvina Fay. "Florida residents need to know that the laundry list of loopholes in the amendment language will essentially create de-facto marijuana legalization in Florida, leaving our state to face all of the undesirable consequences that come with legalizing an addictive drug."

It may be a week or so before it becomes clear whether United for Care collected enough valid signatures to make the ballot. Signers must be registered voters and may sign only one petition. The signature on the petition must match the one on file in elections offices.

County elections officials have until Feb. 1 to process the petitions, and some counties are backlogged.

Besides setting an overall statewide petition count, the law also establishes minimum signature thresholds for each of Florida's 27 congressional districts.

Petition sponsors must hit those minimums in at least 14 districts. United for Care is comfortable that it already has met that goal, said Pollara, but the group wants to add a 15th district as a buffer.

That's why United for Care will keep a small office open in Jacksonville through Monday, he said, continuing to pay signature gatherers in Duval County for a few more days.

The petition campaign began in July, but United for Care suspended paid operations for about a month in the fall, hoping that the court would rule on the ballot language before the bills piled up too high. That delay later proved to be a costly mistake, Morgan has said.

With the campaign running short on signatures and time by December, United for Care shifted into high gear, in some cases paying petition gatherers as much as $4 per signature. Submissions to county elections offices took a huge leap after Christmas, hitting as high as 200,000 in one week.

Though a few thousand people made donations, campaign finance documents show that the Morgan & Morgan law firm kicked in almost $2.5 million in 2013, with nearly $1.8 million of that coming in December.

Costs for the first two weeks in January could easily push Morgan's contribution close to $3 million, covering about three-quarters of United for Care's budget.

By New Year's, county elections officials had rejected about 28 to 29 percent of the ballots they had processed to that point, Pollara said recently. He expected that rejection rate to rise slightly with the last-minute push.

By submitting more than 1.1 million signatures, the campaign can withstand a 37 percent rejection rate and still meet its target.

What happens next?

The push for medical marijuana now lies with elections officials and the Florida Supreme Court.

• County elections officials will continue to process submitted petitions to verify whether the signatures are valid. Some counties are still lagging weeks behind in processing petitions and reporting the results to the state Division of Elections.

• On Feb. 1, all petition processing stops. At that point, the state Division of Elections tabulates the results. At least 683,149 petitions must be validated for the amendment to make the ballot.

• Between now and April 1, the Supreme Court must rule on the legality of the ballot language.

• If enough signatures are validated and the court approves the ballot language, the measure will go to voters in November.

• If the court approves the ballot language but the signature count falls short, the petition-gathering campaign can crank back up, using all valid petitions processed so far. But the amendment cannot appear on the ballot until 2016.

• If the signature campaign succeeds but the court rules that the ballot language is illegal, all petitions are invalidated. Anyone pushing another citizen initiative would have to start from scratch.

Group says it has enough signatures to put medical marijuana on Florida ballot 01/15/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 16, 2014 9:29am]
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