Florida’s nascent, seemingly improbable campaign for the legalization of medical marijuana received a significant boost in March when Orlando power attorney John Morgan climbed on board. Morgan, who factors heavily in the state’s political fundraising machine – he contributed $1.7 million to President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012 and hosted Obama at his home on several occasions – co-opted the financially troubled organization People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFMM), a statewide medical-marijuana advocacy organization founded in Orlando four years ago, and has helped rebrand it as United for Care. The new name and branding brings with it a more serious public face, and the addition of Morgan – who is now the organization’s chair – means access to funding.
“Over the years, our organization has grown across the state and now has thousands of supporters,” Kim Russell, founder of the organization, wrote in an April 8 announcement about the changes. “Still, we have struggled with the high costs associated with getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot and a political environment that was not as open to medical marijuana as it is now.”
Morgan says he has pumped “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the organization, with more projected in the near future to fund television and radio advertising. He has publicly declared this a personal battle, citing his father’s use of marijuana more than a decade ago to quell the pains of esophageal cancer and emphysema, but in broader strokes, the petition campaign to get marijuana legalization on the 2014 ballot has a broader humanitarian purpose.
“I think it could be unprecedented in Florida politics, when you have so many volunteers with a passion for compassion out there collecting signatures,” he says. “This will cost me quite a bit of money in proportion to what I have, but if it happens, I see it as political philanthropy – that through politics, a whole lot of good could be done for a whole lot of people for a whole lot of time.”
United for Care will need to gather just under 700,000 signatures to even garner consideration for a public referendum. The reorganized group, still in its start-up stages, is now in the process of vetting the petition language through prominent attorneys so that it passes the state’s single-subject rules for ballot referendums (Morgan’s hired counselor Jon Mills, who works in the law firm of attorney David Boies, the lead attorney on the effort to overturn California’s Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage). Once that’s finalized, Morgan plans to enlist petition support from a signature-gathering firm based in Nevada. He says United for Care will also utilize some local grass-roots organizing.
Currently, there are two legalization bills filed in the Florida legislature – House Bill 1139 and Senate Bill 1250 – but neither is expected to gain any traction during the last throes of an extremely conservative session.
“I wish the legislature would take it up,” Morgan says. “I wish they would at least give it a hearing.”
But it’s not just the legislature that needs convincing. Morgan realizes that marijuana legalization, despite increasingly positive polling, is at best a divisive issue in the Sunshine State. The religious right, so often motivated in ballot measures involving social issues, will likely be out front opposing the measure.
“If they are truly religious instead of a fanatic, they will look at it and go, ‘it’s a compassionate issue,’” Morgan says. “God knows what he’s doing and God put this plant into nature for us.”
Morgan plans to position the legalization issue as a concern for the ailing elderly, not what he calls a “Cheech and Chong listening to Santana records” free-for-all. Moreover, medical marijuana is a pro-business issue that could bring tax revenues to a state that coddles industry, he says; likewise, if it is regulated, there would be less concern about criminal abuses. The real crime, Morgan says, is delaying the inevitable.
“Here’s the terrible thing about it: We know one day it’s going to be allowed,” Morgan says. “There’s just no doubt about it. Every day that a new baby is born, it gets closer and closer. The sad part is that in the meantime, people are going to suffer.”