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Drive for recreational pot draws big bucks

The political committee Make It Legal Florida, which registered with the state Aug. 1, raised $1.09 million in cash and received $104,500 in in-kind contributions.
A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto. [AP Photo | CP, Kevin Frayer] [KEVIN FRAYER | AP]
Published Sep. 11
Updated Sep. 12

A three-week-old recreational marijuana drive backed by the marijuana industry has raised more than six times the amount of money collected by a longstanding grassroots effort to legalize the drug for adult use.

The Make it Legal Florida proposal is chaired by Nick Hansen, a lobbyist for a California-based medical marijuana chain, MedMen, and former adviser to Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg.

MedMen and Atlanta-based marijuana giant Surterra — both of which operate in Florida — are behind the nearly $1.2 million raised so far, according to the Division of Elections.

The nascent effort, filed Aug. 22, hopes to amend the Constitution to allow adults 21 or older to have, use, purchase and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for “personal use” and gives existing medical marijuana treatment centers in the state the exclusive right to sell it.

Hansen says they’re just getting started.

“We’re in it to win it,” he said.

He said they just started collecting signatures using a paid petition-gathering firm this week, and are using direct mail, social media, email and online advertisements to reach potential voters. Hansen declined to disclose which petition-gathering firm he’s hired.

The effort has also launched a website where voters can print, sign and send in petitions, and hired the same high-powered public relations firm that successfully got the “Marsy’s Law for Florida” victims rights amendment onto the ballot in 2018.

The group is targeting voters who signed petitions to legalize medical marijuana in 2014 and 2016, as well as certain groups who supported other expanded cannabis use efforts.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” he said. “We’re going to exhaust all avenues.”

Regulate Florida, chaired by Tampa attorney Michael Minardi, has already gathered enough signatures on a proposal to trigger a judicial and financial review but has only raised about $180,000 since it started in 2015.

Minardi’s language similarly limits marijuana use to people 21 and older, but includes growing marijuana as well.

A key difference is language that mandates that the state adopt a new licensing structure for marijuana growing, manufacturing, testing and selling, and does not mention existing license holders as part of the proposal.

The current structure for medical marijuana licenses is a “vertically integrated” one and has been widely criticized by grassroots groups and marijuana activists in Florida. Under the current structure, license holders must take care of growing, processing, testing, distributing and selling their product without third-party help. Critics say the system has dissuaded smaller, local companies from joining the market because of the broad skill set (and budget) required to run a “seed-to-sale” company.

Instead, large national companies acquire the licenses, which are sometimes sold for millions of dollars. MedMen paid $53 million for its license last year.

The entire system could be upended if the Florida Supreme Court takes up a key case filed by Tampa-based marijuana company, Florigrown. Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican, is trying to moot the case altogether in a bill that would lift license caps and upend the vertical integration system.

Minardi said he believes key components of his amendment, like allowing homegrown marijuana and protections for employees, are crucial for why could become law in Florida.

“I support a move forward with legislation, but I don’t like the limitations,” said Minardi, who also said he tried to make suggestions for Hansen’s ballot language. “We’re still pushing, we’re still moving forward.”

Hansen said his campaign’s narrow language is on purpose, and will help them be as compliant as possible with the law. Florida law requires that an initiative only address one issue or subject, and not attempt to change the law in a multitude of ways.

Minardi’s campaign was dinged in an opinion by Attorney General Ashley Moody, who noted that the language was longer than Article I of the Florida Constitution.

“There is no way 10 pages of the law can be summarized clearly in 75 words or less and would adequately convey to the voters what exactly they will be voting on,” Moody wrote in a statement.

Marijuana petition experts say the narrow language along with the major industry backing is what will make Hansen’s campaign successful.

“They can’t go and try to change the world because it’s not their fight,” said John Morgan, the prominent Orlando personal injury attorney who bankrolled two petition drives to legalize medical marijuana. “I agree that vertical integration takes away competition. I’m a free-market capitalist. But that’s a fight for another day.”

Morgan added that the donations are a “financial no-brainer” for businesses that would be able to sell the legal pot when the time comes.

“The money is a drop in the bucket,” he said. “If liquor stores could only sell wine spritzers and then they could sell full liquor but they have to spend $10 million to do it. It’s just like that.”

Morgan is not formally involved with either petition drive.

Taylor Biehl, policy director for the Medical Marijuana Business Association, says the large donations are a good sign, but more companies will “have to show up to the dance” to fund a relatively quick campaign. They just entered the race last month, and have until February to collect 766,200 signatures.

Not only is donating “the wisest investment an MMTC can make to date,” he said, but the language also stands the best chance of passing constitutional muster.

“It’s a prime and ripe time for an amendment that can withstand any court challenges if implemented correctly,” he said.

Roz McCarthy, founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana said having big money and powerful companies leading the push for recreational pot isn’t a bad thing so long as they use their voices to elevate people of color and address the way they’ve been disproportionately impacted by criminal charges for marijuana offenses.

“The MedMen and Surterras of the world have the money, the backing and the privilege,” she said. “They really can change the dynamics of this conversation.”

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