Charlie Crist's boss, John Morgan, to lead medical marijuana initiative in Florida

A vendor points out the variety of marijuana for sale in Seattle last month. A state voter initiative last fall legalized recreational use; Washington’s medical marijuana industry already operated.
A vendor points out the variety of marijuana for sale in Seattle last month. A state voter initiative last fall legalized recreational use; Washington’s medical marijuana industry already operated.
Published Mar. 18, 2013

John Morgan, a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama and the boss of former Gov. Charlie Crist, is taking the reins of a Florida medical marijuana initiative, promising to pump major money and political muscle into the popular issue.

Morgan, a top Florida trial lawyer based in Orlando, said he's ready to tap a network of donors and his personal bank account to get the measure in front of voters in 2014 as a proposed constitutional amendment.

"I can get the money. I have the money. I will be joined by people with money who will help," Morgan said. "I've been very fortunate in life, and I can make it happen."

It could cost as much as $3.5 million to fund paid petition gatherers to collect the valid signatures of 683,149 Florida voters needed to get a measure on the ballot. An ad and absentee-ballot campaign could cost up to $10 million more.

Constitutional amendments need to be approved in Florida with 60 percent of the vote.

Morgan said he hasn't spoken about the issue with Crist or Obama, with whom he had dinner last week. And, he said, he doesn't care whether they support it.

Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat, is considering a run for governor. He did not return calls for comment.

Morgan, however, has spoken to former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills, a state constitutional expert who will help write the amendment ballot summary to help ensure it passes muster at the Florida Supreme Court.

Morgan, head of the Morgan & Morgan firm, said he's going to lead the initiative for personal reasons: His father had struggled with cancer and emphysema, and only marijuana helped him.

"He was tethered to machines and on all these drugs that he had no appetite," Morgan said. "One of my brothers was able to get marijuana for him so he could eat and be happy."

Though Morgan is a top Democrat, the medical marijuana initiative has backing from Republicans and independents as well, according to a poll completed last month by the group that Morgan will lead, People United for Medical Marijuana.

The survey showed that 73 percent of Florida voters would approve of the proposal allowing doctors to recommend marijuana for medicinal use. Support cuts across party, demographic and regional lines.

To date, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, including Republican-leaning states like Arizona. Most of the laws have been approved by voters, not politicians. Even recreational marijuana use got approval of voters in Colorado and Washington in November.

"Florida is a top four state," Morgan said. "This is a domino that could fall in Florida and really have a big effect around the country."

Critics hope that doesn't happen.

Bill Bunkley, a prominent Florida evangelical radio personality, recently spoke out against the effort.

Without mentioning Crist's name, Bunkley noted that the issue could help a Democratic candidate for governor. And, he said, medical marijuana laws can lead to a type of legalization, which a majority of Floridians still oppose when asked if they want pot legalized outright.

"Just say 'No' still applies here in Florida," Bunkley wrote last month.

Morgan acknowledges he'd like to see marijuana decriminalized outright, but he said medical cannabis is a "no-brainer." And, just as evangelical leaders like Bunkley point to the Bible, so does Morgan.

"It is a plant that grows in our environment put here by God, not man," Morgan said. "It works. It helps people."

Marijuana is federally classified as a drug that has no medicinal value. And even though states have legalized its medicinal use and tried to regulate it, it's still illegal at the federal level.

More than 37,000 marijuana plants and 771 grow sites — many of which are indoor greenhouses — were destroyed last year in Florida. More than 720 people were arrested.

"Our agency plays a significant role in safeguarding Florida's 19 million residents from potential threats," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement. "Our partnership with local law enforcement on this initiative helps prevent marijuana from getting to our communities, making them safer for everyone."

While the antimarijuana sentiment from Republicans like Putnam might seem out of step with a majority of Republicans polled by People United for Medical Marijuana, it remains the prevailing political view in the GOP-controlled state Capitol.

Last year, state legislators refused to even consider a proposed constitutional amendment asking voters to allow for medical marijuana. This year, two Democrats, Lake Worth Sen. Jeff Clemens and Sunrise Rep. Katie Edwards, have filed legislation that would decriminalize marijuana for medical use.

The measure has not been heard in committee and faces Republican opposition.

The partisan divide could spell trouble for the proposed constitutional amendment.

"Don't frame turnout efforts on the passage of the ballot initiative in a partisan way," consultant David Beattie, who typically surveys for Democrats and conducted the People United for Medical Marijuana poll, wrote in a strategy memo.

People United for Medical Marijuana recently announced that Republican-turned-libertarian Roger Stone, a Miami Beach political operative who's considering a bid for governor, is joining the effort.

Joining Stone: Democratic fundraiser Ben Pollara and Eric Sedler, the former consulting business partner of Obama White House adviser David Axelrod.

Morgan replaces People United for Medical Marijuana's director, Kim Russell, who said she was happy the initiative is getting the major attention and help it needs.

Morgan said that most voters understand that marijuana can help the sick and that it's not nearly as dangerous as some legal drugs.

"If you want to get immoral, go get you some tequila. Then we'll talk about immorality," he said. "Tequila makes marijuana look like an Amish bride."