Deep pockets and personal stories underpin Florida's medical marijuana push

Lawyer John Morgan, whose father smoked marijuana while battling cancer, provided 80 percent of the money needed to get medical marijuana on Florida’s November ballot.
Lawyer John Morgan, whose father smoked marijuana while battling cancer, provided 80 percent of the money needed to get medical marijuana on Florida’s November ballot.
Published Feb. 17, 2014

Orlando lawyer John Morgan — he of billboard, television and Web ad fame — provided 80 percent of the funds needed to get medical marijuana on Florida's November ballot.

But his were not the only deep pockets that came into play.

A publicity-shy soap heiress contributed $260,000. A liquor store bigwig kicked in $50,000. And Florida was beginning to intrigue the biggest catch of all — billionaire pot enthusiast Peter Lewis — until he suddenly died in November.

Thousands of people contributed $10 here and $100 there to support the medical marijuana campaign. But as with other constitutional amendments, a few big donors can tip the balance.

In this case, major donors shared more than a willingness to open their wallets. Each had a personal connection to serious medical conditions that the amendment — seen in its most favorable light — is designed to alleviate.

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Privately held Stiefel Laboratories was a giant in skin care before selling out to GlaxoSmithKline in 2009 for $3.6 billion.

J.D. Stiefel (pronounced STEE -ful) founded the company in 1847 in Germany and made a fortune on medicated soaps. Management passed down through five generations of fathers and sons. Products included soap to wash away "freckles and unsightly tans,'' antioxidant lotions, anti-fungals, acne treatments and dandruff shampoos.

Coral Cables resident Barbara Stiefel, 61, is part of the fifth generation. Her father once led Stie­fel Laboratories' international operations, with distributorships in 30 countries. Public records indicate that they lived in adjoining condos on Coral Way until he died in 2006. Forbes magazine estimated her wealth at $120 million.

Stiefel does not give interviews, and would only briefly describe her interest in medical marijuana in an email: "I am a philanthropist and activist, and this cause provides safe relief to millions of patients.''

Though she avoids publicity, Stiefel does not shirk from donating to causes. Along with medical marijuana, she gave $100,000 last year to help a water and lands amendment get on the November ballot.

She was one of President Barack Obama's top donors in 2012, with gifts including $1 million to a political action committee that produced an ad blitz tagging GOP challenger Mitt Romney as an elitist.

Last year, she gave $100,000 to Democratic convert Charlie Crist's gubernatorial campaign and $25,000 to a PAC supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2016.

Charles Stiefel, former CEO of the family business and Barbara Stiefel's cousin, has given more than $11 million to Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In a news release from the world-renowned facility, he offered a possible hint to his cousin's interest in medical marijuana: "Cancer claimed the lives of my mother, father, younger brother and uncle.''

That uncle was Barbara Stie­fel's father.

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John W. Holloway, 60, is known in Orlando for fighting cerebral palsy. His brother died of the disease. His extended family has given enough to United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida that two branches are named in their honor.

When John Morgan called on Holloway last year about the medical marijuana campaign, the talk was more about cancer. Morgan's father used pot to relieve pain before dying of cancer, as had Holloway's best friend from childhood.

Prescription pain medication helped some, Holloway said, but the amounts doctors would prescribe didn't provide enough relief. His friend occasionally used marijuana and it helped, but he could never count on a steady supply.

The friend died Jan. 7.

"The laws have no compassion for people in pain,'' Holloway said in a recent interview. "I very strongly believe that if my best friend had been able to do something about his pain, he would still be alive.''

Holloway's father founded the ABC Liquors chain in 1936, three years after Prohibition ended. Holloway sees parallels between alcohol and pot, regarding both consumption and the potential for government revenue.

"Everything, if used responsibly — alcohol, marijuana, sugar, salt — can perform a function and not hurt somebody,'' Holloway said. "The taxes would be a windfall.''

• • •

Peter Lewis — billionaire, art patron and medical marijuana legend — was skeptical that John Morgan could bring Florida into the fold.

Morgan and Miami political consultant Ben Pollara visited Lewis last summer. Forbes estimated that the man who built Progressive Insurance had given about $40 million to other marijuana campaigns, and the Floridians hoped he would do the same for theirs.

Lewis' left leg was amputated in 1998 due to an infection, and he was open about smoking pot for the chronic pain he suffered afterward. He once was arrested in New Zealand for possession.

Much as he believed in the medicinal value of pot, he doubted that Floridians would approve a ballot initiative.

"He called Morgan a romantic,'' Pollara recalled. "Pollyanna'' is how Morgan remembered it.

Still, a meeting scheduled for one hour turned into a three-hour lunch catered by a private cook. Lewis said he might reconsider if Morgan could demonstrate some success. Pollara, Morgan's campaign director, promised to send regular reports and advertising mock-ups.

"I think he was ready to contribute for the general election,'' if the constitutional amendment made the ballot, Pollara said.

Morgan hoped he could woo Lewis more quickly, to help shoulder the cost of petition gathering. But Lewis died in November at age 80.

Morgan remembers thinking: "I'm all alone now.''

"We had such a great meeting and were getting such good feedback,'' Morgan said. "To this guy, $2 million was like $200,000 to me.''

According to state records, the petition campaign ended up costing Morgan $3.6 million, just through January.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at