Proponents of a constitutional amendment that would broadly legalize medical marijuana in Florida received a $1 million boost this week from a political committee focused on similar initiatives in other states.
The committee, New Approach, is tied to the family of the late philanthropist Peter Lewis, the former head of Progressive Insurance, who died in 2013 and who bankrolled medical-marijuana proposals in Washington and Massachusetts. New Approach also was a major contributor to an Oregon initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.
It's the largest single contribution received by supporters of Amendment 2 and comes as the battle over the constitutional question heats up in advance of the Nov. 8 election. As another sign of the growing battle, a powerful state senator and a former Florida Supreme Court justice appeared at a news conference Friday to oppose the ballot initiative.
"We are obviously very pleased to receive such a generous donation [from New Approach]. It's going to be put to good use very quickly, making sure that our message is on television across the state and that Floridians understand this is about putting medical decisions back in the hands of doctors and patients and out of the hands of politicians," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of People United for Medical Marijuana, also known as United for Care.
Pollara is hoping to parlay the contribution from New Approach into more financial support.
"It's going to be a big acknowledgment to our existing donor base of 8,000 people that we're almost to the finish line and we're getting substantial support. I think it will be a huge boon for our fundraising," Pollara said Friday.
Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan and his law firm have been the major financial backers of Amendment 2, which mirrors a similar proposal that voters narrowly rejected two years ago. So far this year, Morgan and his firm have contributed more than $2.6 million to People United for Medical Marijuana, which he also chairs.
Morgan is also paying for radio ads running statewide urging voters to support the amendment. Exactly how much he has spent on the ads has not yet been reported, and Morgan said he doesn't know what the total will be.
"I'm spending a fortune right now," Morgan said in a telephone interview Thursday evening. "I don't know what the number will be until the month's over. I've done a dangerous thing — I've given a blank check to the radio stations."
This week's contribution from New Approach came as the Drug Free Florida Committee — which played a key role in defeating the 2014 amendment — spent more than $1.8 million during the first three weeks of September to fight the initiative, with most of the money going to advertising.
Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson contributed $1 million this month to the Drug Free Florida Committee, which also received $800,000 in July from the Carol Jenkins Barnett Family Trust. The trust, associated with the daughter of Publix Super Markets founder George Jenkins, also contributed $540,000 in 2014 to the Drug Free Florida Committee.
Tampa Bay developer Mel Sembler has also contributed $1 million this year to try to defeat the proposal. Developer Al Hoffman also contributed $25,000 to oppose the amendment.
On Friday, state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who opposes the amendment, told reporters he was underwriting a television ad in the Tampa Bay area urging his constituents to vote "no" on the ballot proposal. Latvala, the incoming Senate appropriations chairman, appeared at a news conference in Tallahassee with former Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell.
Latvala, who estimated the cost of the ad at about $100,000, acknowledged that recent polls have showed Florida voters overwhelmingly back legalizing medical marijuana.
"My position is probably upside down at this point," he said.
Latvala two years ago opposed a measure that legalized non-euphoric medical marijuana for people with chronic muscle spasms, epilepsy or cancer. That law, which was expanded this year to include full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients, was aimed at helping children with severe forms of epilepsy. Parents argued the low-THC treatment can dramatically reduce or eliminate life-threatening seizures.
"I have seen the effects that marijuana has on individuals," Latvala said. "I'm a moderate on many issues … but not on this one."
Five weeks before the general election, Amendment 2 has received less attention than the marijuana issue got during the 2014 election season.
One of the highest-profile opponents of the 2014 measure — the Florida Sheriffs Association — has stayed on the sidelines thus far, opting not to take a position on the revamped proposal.
Two years ago, Morgan used a bus tour to promote the marijuana initiative to college students.
In one of many appearances across the state, the Orlando lawyer was caught on tape delivering a boozy, expletive-laced monologue to what appears to be a crowd of young supporters at a bar after a rally in the Lakeland area.
"I've decided that less of me is more. I want the focus to be on the issue, not on me," Morgan said of this year's campaign.