Florida voters just say no to medical marijuana

Frances Sansone, 42, of Brooksville, an advocate for Amendment 2, holds a poster in support of medical marijuana while waving at traffic on Spring Hill Drive on Tuesday. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Frances Sansone, 42, of Brooksville, an advocate for Amendment 2, holds a poster in support of medical marijuana while waving at traffic on Spring Hill Drive on Tuesday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 5, 2014

Medical marijuana may be spreading across the nation, but it will not gain a southern beachhead in Florida this year.

Though Amendment 2 once appeared to enjoy widespread support and did win a majority of votes Tuesday, it failed to clear 60 percent as required for constitutional amendments.

"We are very happy that our quality of life here in Florida is going to be preserved,'' said Calvina Fay, executive director of St. Petersburg's Drug Free America Foundation. "We are not going to be seeing pot shops everywhere. We are not going to see opportunities for marijuana to be promoted for our children. We are happy the voters in our state took time to actually read the amendment and vote smart.''

Medical marijuana supporters vowed to take the fight to legalize medical marijuana to the Florida Legislature.

"They can ignore polls, they can ignore activists and they can ignore bills filed by minority legislators, but they cannot ignore the majority vote by Floridians,'' said Ben Pollara, director of the advocacy group United for Care. "And if they do, we will see them again in 2016.''

Amendment 1, which sets up a 20-year funding stream for conservation projects, breezed to victory at the polls.

Under that measure, one-third of the documentary stamp taxes on property transactions will go to a trust fund expected to generate nearly $700 million a year for conservation and recreational lands. It could help restore the Everglades, buy new holdings or preserve Florida's springs.

A third proposed amendment, rewriting the way judges are appointed to the state's highest courts, was soundly defeated.

Amendment 2 appeared popular early on, but as the campaign continued the fact that it would be enshrined in the state Constitution worried many opponents.

The ballot language listed several specific qualifying diseases, like cancer and multiple sclerosis, but also would have allowed doctors to recommend marijuana use for patients who had other "debilitating" conditions.

Critics said such broad language could foster "pot mills," abuse by users wanting to get high, and entrepreneurs seeking profits.

The amendment, just two pages long, would have relied on the Florida Department of Health to fill in thousands of details and rules. If any of those rules had conflicted with Amendment 2's ballot language, critics warned, courts might be forced to throw out important safeguards.

Orlando lawyer John Morgan spent $4 million to get Amendment 2 on the 2014 ballot and became the measure's public face.

"This is not over. It's just over for tonight,'' he said, vowing to lead another amendment fight in two years if the Legislature does not legalize medical marijuana.

Morgan said he got involved with the issue because his father had cancer and his paralyzed brother smokes pot for pain relief. Critics said Amendment 2 was a ploy by Morgan to boost the youth vote and help install his employee, Charlie Crist, into the Governor's Mansion.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, representing the Florida Sheriff's Association, said voters made the right decision. "The people of Florida were too smart to buy into the weak language and huge loopholes in this amendment,'' he said.

St. Petersburg was the epicenter for watching Amendment 2's fate on Tuesday night as supporters surrounded by TV cameras gathered at Fresco's, a popular waterfront restaurant.

Fay, also based in St. Petersburg, said she "cannot speculate on what might be proposed'' by medical marijuana supporters before the Legislature. But she noted that cannabis-based medicines are in clinical trials and might lessen the push for medical marijuana.

Almost half of the country has adopted a medical marijuana system. But none of those states faced Florida's 60 percent threshold for altering its Constitution.

So far, the Florida Legislature has rebuffed any attempt to fully legalize medical marijuana through legislation. This year — under pressure from some parents of epileptic children — the Legislature did approve one strain of noneuphoric pot called Charlotte's Web.

But noneuphoric pot cannot match more powerful varieties when it comes to treating pain or other debilitating conditions, advocates say.

Early polls showed support in the 70 percent range — at least for the concept of medical pot. Morgan remained the major benefactor, though thousands donated small amounts.

Opponents acquired a well-heeled angel of their own when Nevada billionaire Sheldon Adelson spent $5.5 million in anti-pot advertising. Morgan maintained a personal e-mail correspondence with Adelson, trying to keep the casino mogul on friendly terms.

In the end, though, how voters viewed Amendment 2's specifics eroded much of the early support found in polls.

A Vote No On 2 coalition of sheriffs, doctors and former state Supreme Court justices made a persuasive case that Florida's Constitution is a poor vehicle for sweeping social change.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at