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This group opposes Florida effort to legalize recreational marijuana

Floridians Against Recreational Marijuana filed paperwork with the state Thursday in an effort to “defeat this dangerous initiative.”
A marijuana plant is shown in Oregon in 2018.
A marijuana plant is shown in Oregon in 2018. [ DON RYAN | AP ]
Published Nov. 23, 2019

While the two main pushes to get adult-use marijuana on the 2020 ballot have picked up steam — and signatures — the effort is facing its first real opposition.

A new political committee, Floridians Against Recreational Marijuana, filed its paperwork with the state Thursday in an effort to “defeat this dangerous initiative,” according to Republican operative Brian Swensen, who is leading the statewide effort.

Swensen, former deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former political director of the Republican Party of Florida, said the group is made up of citizens, businesses, anti-drug advocates and medical professionals who fear Florida will be transformed by what they call a “reckless” amendment. It claims to be acting in the interest of medical marijuana patients.

The Coalition for Medical Cannabis, a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit, is partnering with the PAC in its effort.

Swensen said the public can expect “a very aggressive campaign” that will go beyond television spots, radio advertisements and mailers.

The push isn’t aimed at one specific adult-use marijuana petition, of which there are several, but rather “any initiative that will bring recreational marijuana to Florida.”

The two pro-pot efforts that have the most signatures and money on hand are the Make it Legal Florida and Regulate Florida petitions. The first petition, mostly backed by large donations from medical marijuana giants MedMen and Parallel (formerly Surterra Wellness), seeks to maintain Florida’s licensing structure and allow existing license holders to sell recreational marijuana. The latter proposes to break down the current structure and allow users to grow marijuana at home.

Both initiatives have gathered enough signatures to trigger the Supreme Court review of its ballot language.

A recent University of North Florida poll shows that 64% of registered voters support adult-use marijuana. Of the 666 voters polled, 44% said they “strongly support” recreational marijuana and 20% “somewhat support” it. Just 9% somewhat oppose and 24% strongly oppose.

The numbers are higher for Democrats, as 73% support the legalization of recreational marijuana, but 54% of Republicans said they would support this change as well.

Nick Hansen, MedMen lobbyist and chairman of Make it Legal Florida, said he isn’t surprised by the new opposition. Every cannabis amendment or law gets opposition, he noted.

“Make it Legal Florida is proud to stand with the super majority of Floridians who want expanded access to safe, well-regulated cannabis,” he wrote in a text message.

Michael Minardi, who chairs Regulate Florida, echoed the sentiment.

“Opposition is obviously expected,” he said. “The myths these types of groups continue to spread are just that: myths.”

While the groups say they aren’t worried about the new opposition campaign, ballot initiative veteran Ben Pollara says any opposition should be taken seriously. These campaigns need 60% of the vote to pass, he noted, and getting to 60% is a “gigantic hurdle.”

He knows the feeling well. Pollara worked alongside Orlando financier and personal injury attorney John Morgan during the failed push for medical marijuana in 2014 and the eventually successful initiative in 2016.

“When you are the opposition of a constitutional amendment ... you can lay in wait and sow doubts,” he said. “You can take an initiative at 65 or 70% polling down to 59%.”

Pollara noted, however, that the message of the opposition campaign doesn’t seem overwhelmingly strong.

“Their scope is to protect medical cannabis patients and patient access,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s a winning message.”