TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Medical marijuana proponents cleared a major hurdle Friday by surpassing the number of signatures required to make it on the November ballot.
But it's still up in the air whether voters will get to choose if they want Florida to join 20 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing medical marijuana.
The Florida Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments about the ballot initiative last month, will have final say as it decides whether the proposal meets constitutional requirements and does not mislead voters.
With 710,508 validated signatures statewide --- 27, 359 more than the required 683,149 --- and reaching signature requirements in the bare minimum of 14 congressional districts, People United for Medical Marijuana beat a Feb. 1 deadline for submitting petitions to the state.
"We are absolutely thrilled about reaching the required number of signatures. This is a historic day for Florida. Hopefully, Floridians will not only get a chance to vote on medical marijuana this fall but will pass it and bring relief to the thousands of Floridians that are desperately asking for it," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, the group working for People United for Medical Marijuana.
The push for the medical marijuana initiative is being led by Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist's boss, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan. Morgan and his law firm have contributed at least $2.7 million, including nearly $1 million in loans last month, to the effort. But that's just a drop in the bucket. Pollara estimates that, if the initiative makes it onto the ballot, the campaign could cost at least $10 million. Like all other constitutional proposals, the amendment would need at least 60 percent of the vote to pass.
Republicans as well as law enforcement and parts of the business community have lined up against the proposal. Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders oppose letting doctors prescribe pot, and Attorney General Pam Bondi's lawyer argued against the proposal before the high court last month.
Many of the justices' questions focused on the difference between the ballot summary's reference to "debilitating diseases," which would appear before voters, and the amendment language which says doctors could write pot prescriptions for a "debilitating medical condition."
Solicitor General Allen Winsor, representing opponents, argued that the ballot title and summary that would appear on the ballot could deceive voters about the scope of the amendment. Winsor argued that the ballot language is misleading because it wrongly leads voters to believe that fewer people could get access to pot when doctors instead would have much more liberty to determine who qualifies.
But former House Speaker Jon Mills, a constitutional lawyer who authored the proposed amendment and argued on its behalf before the court, said the proposal was written to give doctors the ability to make the best decision for their patients.
Scott has repeatedly said he does not want to make pot legal because of the risks of abuse.
But on Friday, the governor toned down his message, saying he would defer to voters.
?I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative. But, having seen the terrible affects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it. No matter my personal beliefs, however, a ballot initiative would be up to the voters to decide,? Scott said in an e-mailed statement.
Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for Bondi, said the attorney general's office is waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court on the ballot language and would refrain from commenting Friday.
Morgan insists he was inspired by his own family's suffering. He said medical marijuana eased the excruciating pain and discomfort his father experienced as a result of emphysema and esophageal cancer.
But some critics have questioned Morgan's true motives. Putting the pot question on the November ballot where his friend and fellow Democrat Crist might also appear may help the former governor. Polls have shown widespread support for the proposal, but the support is even higher among younger voters. Medical marijuana could help drive those voters, who might otherwise stay home in a non-presidential election, to the polls.
The strategy is similar to what Republicans used in previous years with proposals banning gay marriage, said Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner. Wagner said that could also be why Republicans like Bondi are fighting the initiative in court.
"It's a political play in which neither side cares about who wins but what's on the ballot," Wagner said.