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Florida pot group sues state over new petition rules

Make it Legal Florida alleges that a new elections law passed by lawmakers in 2019 is unconstitutional and places undue restrictions on the ballot initiative process.

The political committee behind a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking for more time to submit petition signatures.

In a 57-page complaint filed in Leon County Circuit Court, Make it Legal Florida alleges that a new elections law passed during the 2019 legislative session was unconstitutional and placed undue restrictions on the ballot initiative process. The group also alleges that the nearly two months of glitches that came with a newly created state web portal to register paid petition gatherers was detrimental to the petition effort.

Part of the controversial new law, which passed in the spring and went into effect in July, requires that county supervisors of elections must verify signatures within 30 days of receiving them. According to Make it Legal Florida, that rule effectively establishes “a stealth deadline” of January 2, which is 30 days before the February 1 deadline. Therefore, signatures submitted on January 30 have no chance of being counted.

The class-action lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews, named Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones as a representative of all 67 elections supervisors in Florida.

Andrews said Lee was tasked with an “unfunded mandate” of putting the new law into play without a budget item to pay for it. However, he says, during the Legislative Budget Committee in August, she could have asked for an additional appropriation to create a better website.

The group is not seeking damages.

“We just want a fix,” Andrews told the Miami Herald. “[The law] violates people’s right to vote, it violates the sponsor’s ability to collect signatures.”

The new elections law, which was tacked onto a tax-cut bill as an amendment during the chaotic final days of the 2019 legislative session, requires that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered.

It also requires that gatherers — who must register as an in-state petition circulator with the Secretary of State — turn in petitions to supervisors of elections within 30 days of being signed and disclose whether out-of-state signature gatherers were hired. The rule also requires that ballot language include the name of the initiative’s sponsor and the percent of money raised by sources in-state.

According to the Make it Legal Florida’s proposed ballot language, the amendment would allow adults 21 or older to have, use, purchase and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and paraphernalia. It also gives existing medical marijuana treatment centers in the state the right to sell marijuana and other accessories if clearly labeled and enclosed in childproof packaging.

Make it Legal Florida 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.

The state had verified 219,290 signed petitions from Make It Legal Florida as of late Tuesday afternoon, according to the Division of Elections website. That’s just 28% of the total signatures needed by Feb. 1.

Make it Legal Florida is turning to mail-in petitions for one last signature push. The group has spent more than $945,700 on the mailers that come pre-filled with a voter’s name, address and voter registration number, and can be sent back to the campaigns free of charge.