Florida Legalization: Seeking 60 Percent in the Sunshine State

Published on September 20, 2016 · Last updated September 26, 2022

Abigail met me in a town south of Tampa on a summer evening along State Route 17. We’d never seen each other before, but I knew it was her by the way she walked. Unsteadily. With a cane.

Abigail isn’t her real name. I changed it because she risks arrest and imprisonment for what she told me. Years ago Abigail was a fashion designer in England. Today she struggles daily with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS).

Ten years ago, when the MS kicked in, vagus nerve problems chased away her interest in food. She couldn’t eat. Her body withered.

A friend mentioned that marijuana might stimulate her appetite.

“No,” Abigail replied. “That’s not my thing.”

Then insomnia tormented her. Desperate, Abigail turned to cannabis to help her sleep. It also revived her appetite. “I’d smoke until I got hungry and then I’d eat,” she told me.

Nowadays she uses medical cannabis for appetite, sleep, and to alleviate the nerve pain that comes on in the evenings. “It can feel like a burning sensation,” she explained, “or like you’re getting shocked, you know—like when you hit your funny bone.”

She makes her own edibles—chocolate chip walnut cookies—and rolls her own cannabis cigarettes.

“How do you obtain it?” I asked.

It’s tough, she said. “I don’t know anybody. I ask friends to mail me some, and I find some here and there.” She knows nothing about the potency or quality of the cannabis, and her doctor doesn’t want to discuss it because of the legal risks. “When I do find it, I try to buy a half-pound at a time because I don’t know when I’ll find it again.”

The penalty for possessing a half-pound of cannabis in Florida isn’t just jail. It’s five years in prison.

As Florida gears up for another vote on medical marijuana this November, thousands of patients like Abigail live in a state of confusion, desperation, and fear. Although the state Legislature recently allowed a few patients to possess CBD-only products, Florida remains an illegal state. Patients are forced to obtain low-grade cannabis on the black market, and they’re acutely aware of the risks they run. 

Florida patients live in a state of confusion and fear. CBD oil is legal, but anything stronger will get you arrested.

Marijuana arrests aren’t taken lightly here. Last year a Miami jury convicted 43-year-old Richard Varona for growing 15 plants to provide medical cannabis to his wife, who was battling breast cancer. The state doesn’t report data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, but ACLU researchers found that 57,951 arrests were made in Florida for marijuana possession in 2010.

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California’s upcoming adult-use vote has caught the world’s attention, but Florida’s move to legalize medical cannabis this November may prove to be a more significant milestone. With the world’s largest medical marijuana market, California has been quasi-legal for 20 years. Florida has not. Introducing medical legalization here would create the largest state-approved cannabis industry west of the Rockies and establish a long-sought East Coast foothold for the legalization movement.

Turning Florida would be momentous. It would be dramatic. But it won’t be easy.

MMJ legalization lost by 3 percent on Nov. 4, 2014. “The next day we were re-drafting the amendment,” said Ben Pollara.
MMJ legalization lost by 3 percent on Nov. 4, 2014. “The next day we were re-drafting the amendment,” said Ben Pollara.
In the Miami offices of United for Care, memories of Nov. 4, 2014 are still painful. That night, Florida voters kicked medical marijuana legalization over the 50 percent mark: 52 percent, then 55, then 57. The proposal was, by most measures, wildly successful. Campaign director Ben Pollara would later say, “57 percent is a big f’ing number!”

But it wasn’t big enough. Florida has no statewide initiative process, so the only way to change the law outside the Legislature is by passing a constitutional amendment. And that requires 60.1 percent of the vote.

By the time all votes were in, Florida’s MMJ amendment was left with an impressive—but losing—57.6 percent. Rick Scott won the Florida governor’s race that night with 49 percent. “It was so sad,” recalled Bianca Garza, a 2014 volunteer who now runs United for Care’s media operation. “We came so close.”

Close enough to give it another go? Absolutely. “I knew that night we’d come back,” Pollara told me recently. John Morgan, the Florida lawyer who poured $7 million of his own money into the 2014 effort, was raring to do it all over again.

“The day after the election we were re-drafting the amendment,” Pollara recalled.

Floridians clearly wanted medical marijuana. But legalizing it will require nothing less than the largest electoral majority ever amassed for a cannabis measure in American history. In a state with 20 million people—12 million of them registered voters—moving 57.6 percent to 60.1 means Pollara and Morgan will have to change 301,235 minds. And they only have seven weeks to do it.

The X Factor: Sheldon Adelson’s money

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, seen here speaking in 2012 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has donated $1 million to defeat Florida’s Amendment 2–and is expected to give more. (AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal, John Locher)

That’s a high mountain to climb, but two months before the election things are looking bright. Since May, polls have consistently registered 68 to 69 percent support for Amendment 2, the second coming of MMJ. Many of the state leaders who opposed the amendment in 2014 have remained neutral in 2016.

What changed?

“The number one factor was the stories of patients,” Pollara told me. That, and the Florida Legislature’s intransigence.

Many voters who demurred in 2014 objected to the idea of enshrining medical cannabis in the state constitution. It should be done through the Legislature, they argued.

Fair enough, Pollara and his allies said. They worked with legislators in 2015 and early 2016 to pass a legalization bill. What they got was a weak, CBD-only measure that offered relief to practically no one. Patients with severe seizures or cancer are allowed CBD oil. Only terminally ill patients with less than six months to live are allowed cannabis with THC.

FL Chart-1-web

But that time wasn’t wasted. Although those earlier measures were doomed, critically needy patients—including children and their parents—came forward to share their stories face-to-face with state legislators and the leaders of opposition groups. Warrior moms like Renee Petro, whose 14-year-old son suffers from a rare form of epilepsy, shamed legislative committees with testimony about providing 24-hour care while worrying about drug SWAT teams busting down her door.

The personal testimony opened minds and changed votes. Dr. Clifford Selsky, a respected Orlando pediatrician and current president of the Orange County Medical Society, is speaking out on behalf of Amendment 2. A Republican state senator—Jeff Brandes, representing St. Petersburg—has endorsed the measure. The powerful Florida Sheriffs Association, which adamantly fought legalization in 2014, has remained neutral this time around. One member—Jim Manfre, sheriff of Flagler County, north of Daytona Beach—has even endorsed the amendment.

Other opponents are back for another round. Publix supermarket heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett has donated $800,000 donation to Vote No on 2, and shopping mall millionaire Mel Sembler contributed $1,000,000 of his own. Sembler’s donation was spurred in part by John Morgan, who taunted the mall magnate with a tweet calling him “Mel the Moocher.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-19 at 10.53.42 AM

The X-factor in the Florida vote, though, is casino magnate and ardent prohibitionist Sheldon Adelson. The deep-pocketed Republican donor gave $5 million in eleventh-hour donations in 2014, which bought a lot of TV time and delivered a serious blow to the pro-MMJ vote. Though he’s based in Las Vegas, Adelson is an old personal friend of Mel Sembler’s, and the two share a longtime loathing of cannabis. Adelson recently dropped a $1 million check on the No on 2 campaign, but he’s expected to donate much more by the time November rolls around. “He’ll come in during the last 30 days of the campaign with his money,” Rosalind McCarthy told me. McCarthy is the founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, an advocacy group based in Orlando. “We need to reach our audience now, before he comes in.”

Doing that isn’t as simple as it might sound. Because Florida is… well, Florida.

A mosaic of subcultures and political demographics: Florida contains states within a state.
A mosaic of subcultures and political demographics: Florida contains states within a state.

Welcome to the Five-State Commonwealth

This state isn’t easy to figure out. Steve Schale, a political operator who directed Florida operations for Obama/Biden in 2008, recently described his home as a fractured commonwealth more than a unified state. Most states, he wrote, have a single brand, a commonality of experience. “Florida really doesn’t,” Schale wrote. The state “is a political circle, drawing 20 million people from vast experiences and cultures into one spot. Almost everyone here has come from somewhere else.”

By Schale’s count, there are five states of Florida. North Florida contains the “FloraBama” Southern culture swath from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Orlando and the Interstate 4 Corridor is Florida’s politically roiling battleground region, perennially up for grabs. Tampa and the southern Gulf Coast is older, quieter, leans moderately Republican but is more progressive than North Florida. Southeast Florida (Palm Beach, Broward County) is a Democratic stronghold. And Miami, one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world, once leaned Republican due to the influence of exiled Cubans, but not so much anymore. One of Steve Schale’s key data points: 56 percent of Hispanics in the Miami region identified as Republican in 2000. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 36 percent.

Even with a new diversity entering the state, older and predominantly white retirees can still sway an election—because they register and because they vote.

For Amendment 2 campaign director Pollara, the key to putting his cause over the 60 percent mark is clear. “We need to get 30-second television ads in front of seniors, mostly in the I-4 corridor,” he told me. “Every election in Florida is decided in the I-4. Southern Florida votes Democratic, Northern Florida votes Republican. The battle happens from Tampa to Daytona.”

The battle for the I-4 corridor


Renee Petro’s son is fighting FIRES, a rare childhood epileptic disorder: “It shouldn’t take this long” to obtain medical cannabis, she says.

To get a sense of that battleground and the people involved in the fight, I spent a few days in late summer exploring the I-4 corridor. I met a number of patients caught in a system that delivers close to zero medicine and a heaping dose of fear, confusion, and risk. I also met advocates determined to force change.
Some patients were reluctant to talk publicly for legal reasons, but others stood up and spoke up. Among the most vocal was Renee Petro, Florida’s medical marijuana mama bear.

Petro’s 14-year-old son Branden suffers from a rare condition known as FIRES, febrile infection-related epilepsy syndrome. A devastating epilepsy that affects healthy, school-aged children, FIRES hit Branden seven years ago and triggered a never-ending series of seizures. When conventional pharmaceuticals offered little relief, Petro began researching cannabinoid medicine. She and Branden traveled to California, where they worked with Harborside Health Center and Steep Hill Labs to find a CBD-THC dosage and delivery system that calmed Branden’s seizures. The only problem now: They live in Florida, where nearly all medical marijuana remains illegal. (Branden’s father, a military officer, currently serves overseas.)

Currently Petro is working with Jason David, a Modesto, Calif., father whose son has Dravet Syndrome; and Jason Cranford, founder of the Flowering Hope Foundation, who helped pass Georgia’s low-THC “Haleigh’s Hope Act” in 2015. They’re getting Branden a specifically dosed cannabinoid mixture at night and slowly weaning him off a cocktail of three different pharmaceuticals.

“Now Branden is 18 days seizure-free,” Petro told me. We met at a casual dining spot a few blocks from her home. “I can’t be too far away, in case Branden needs me,” she explained.

Branden is now registered in the state’s extremely constricted CBD-only program, but that limits him to a narrow range of treatments, and his family still lives in a legal gray area. State child protective services workers investigated the Petro family and Branden’s treatment last year. A local sheriff’s deputy is aware of her situation. He’s sympathetic, but he’s not always on duty. “Branden is in the state registry, but the deputy told me his department has no access to that registry,” Petro said. “He’s trying to help me, but he’s also warning me. If another officer responds to a call here and doesn’t know what we’re dealing with, we’re likely to be in a situation.”

She’s a fierce defender of her son and an outspoken advocate for other patients. Three years ago Petro and two other caregiving mothers, Moriah Barnhart and Jacel Delgadillo, founded CannaMoms, a resource group for parents with loved ones in need of cannabinoid medicine.

They could move to Colorado, as others have. But they’ve chosen to stay in Florida and fight. “It shouldn’t take this long” to obtain cannabis-based medicine for her son, Petro said. “Cannabis should have been brought into the mix [of his treatment] from the beginning, not after the other pharmaceuticals have done their damage.”

John Morgan “For The People”

Florida attorney John Morgan holds a photo is his late father Ramon, who passed away from cancer. This image of him was taken in his office at the Morgan and Morgan law firm in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Alex Menendez)

Florida attorney John Morgan holds a photo is his late father Ramon, who died from cancer. His father’s suffering spurred him to support medical marijuana legalization. (AP Photo/Alex Menendez)

Interstate 4 slices through Florida like a forward slash, from Tampa on the Gulf Coast, to landlocked Orlando, to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast. If you drive it, you may fall under the impression that personal injury lawsuits are the engine of Florida’s economy. Few of the roadside billboards beam brighter than those featuring the firm of Morgan & Morgan and its motto, “For The People.” John Morgan, scion of the firm, made his fortune one case at a time, and his sunny, smiling mien is well known to any Floridian who rolls down I-4.

Morgan came to the marijuana issue honestly and tragically. Years ago he watched his father suffer through cancer and emphysema. His brother Tim, a former lifeguard, was partially paralyzed when he dove into a concrete pylon while trying to rescue a swimmer. Both, he says, could have benefitted from the relief offered by medical cannabis.

“For some reason, I became the medical marijuana guy in Florida, the most unlikely of people,” Morgan told a gathering of cannabis advocates and industry officials recently. “There is no state in the union that is more ready for this industry than this state,” he said.

For Morgan, the key to victory is clear. “Money is going to be our biggest obstacle,” he told the crowd in Kissimmee. He spent $7 million in 2014, but he doesn’t know how much he’ll invest in 2016. “Sometimes I go to happy hour and I have one drink,” he said. “Sometimes I end up closing the bar and wind up at the Waffle House at 3 a.m.”

That kind of down-home speechifying has turned Morgan into a beloved figure. Floridians know him for his billboards and his “for the people” ads. They love him for defending the little guy and for championing a cause that—so far—he doesn’t seem interested in cashing in on. “He can’t go to the grocery store without people hugging him and crying and asking for selfies,” Ben Pollara told the Tallahassee Democrat. “He’s gone from being a TV lawyer to being a folk hero.”

Finding votes, one by one

Pretty soon it’ll be impossible to say where Tampa ends and Orlando begins. The city once known only as Disney World’s home has since become North America’s fastest-growing megalopolis. Two years ago Forbes named Orlando the nation’s No. 1 city for job growth. On average, 138 people move to Orlando every day. And why not? It’s got abundant sunshine, family-friendly culture, and room to expand.

Orlando once stood for white middle-class families vacationing at Disney. It ain’t like that anymore. The Urban Institute has charted the region’s Hispanic influx, and Orlando is getting younger and more diverse in a hurry.

Not far from downtown, I stopped in to talk with Rosalind McCarthy, who’s working to get the new Orlando to vote. McCarthy, a successful marketing and public relations professional, recently founded Minorities for Medical Marijuana. “I was a big supporter in 2014, but I wasn’t active,” she told me. This time around, she was determined to do something to help United for Care find those missing 300,000 votes.

“My mother passed from breast cancer in 2005,” McCarthy told me. “I saw the effects of chemotherapy. Her quality of life might have been so much better if medical marijuana had been available then.”

After reading about the potential medical cannabis held for conditions that especially affect people of color—COPD, sickle cell disease, diabetes, glaucoma—she decided to get active. Spreading the word is key. “A lot of people in the 18-to-45 age range don’t realize it will be on the ballot in November.” The word she’s hearing, she said, is apathy. A lot of people don’t see a reason to register or vote.

“Social media is where is starts,” she told me. “The use of Facebook and Instagram is rising quickly in the African-American community, and we need to see culturally relevant messages coming from our community.” The old stereotype—that medical cannabis is just for white hippies who want to get high—remains a major obstacle. “This is a medicine that has the potential to directly help members of our community,” she said. “When patients have a sickle-cell crisis, they endure extreme levels of pain and are often treated with heavy opioids. Medical marijuana could allow them relief and a more normal life.”

How to win 60.1 percent of voters: Register them now.

Volunteers walked neighborhood streets to register voters as Tuesday is the last day to register to vote in the general election Nov. 6. Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Volunteers walked the streets of Miami in 2012 to register voters near the registration deadline for that November’s election. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Talking with McCarthy reminded me of a primary rule in politics: Always run the numbers. Florida contains 20 million people. Registered voters number only 12 million. That 8-million-person gap isn’t entirely accounted for by kids under 18. Millions of eligible Floridian voters remain unregistered.

That represents an opportunity for medical marijuana advocates. Democrats tend to favor medical cannabis more than Republicans, and newly registered voters in Florida tend to lean heavily blue. But the Democratic Party has been notably lacking in its recent efforts. “It worries me,” strategist Steve Shale told the Tampa Bay Times. “There has not been a sustained effort at voter registration.”

African-American voters, in particular, were excited to elect and re-elect President Obama. Hillary Clinton inspires less interest. “Those votes are out there,” Rosalind McCarthy told me, “and you find them through social media, through events, and by door knocking.”

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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