TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott’s fight to keep patients from smoking pot could spark a “political wildfire” that will cost the Republican votes in his battle to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, according to the man largely responsible for making medical marijuana legal in Florida.
Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who spent more than two years and millions of dollars of his own money to convince voters to approve a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana, called on the governor to reverse his opposition to smokable pot, or suffer the consequences.
“This is a message today for Gov. Scott. I believe that your decision to allow this to go on could have serious, serious ramifications in your election against Bill Nelson,” Morgan, a major political fundraiser who supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, told reporters during a press conference Tuesday.
Morgan asked Scott to drop an appeal of a judge’s decision that would allow smokable pot, warning that a continued legal battle over smoking the treatment will dash the governor’s hopes of an upset in the nationally watched race against Nelson, a Democrat who’s represented Florida in the Senate for nearly two decades.
Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers on Friday sided with Morgan and plaintiffs who challenged the smoking prohibition, included in a state law passed last year that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment.
Medical marijuana can be used in other ways, and backers of last year’s law argued that smoking can be harmful to people’s health. The amendment does not expressly authorize smoking pot but gives the state the authority to enact regulations regarding medical marijuana use, lawyers for the state have maintained.
But, agreeing with the plaintiffs, Gievers found that the language in the amendment “recognizes there is no right to smoke in public places, thereby implicitly recognizing the appropriateness of using smokable medical marijuana in private places consistent with the amendment.”
The “ability to smoke medical marijuana was implied” in the constitutional language “and is therefore a protected right,” Gievers wrote.
The Florida Department of Health, which is part of Scott’s administration, filed an appeal less than two hours after Gievers’ decision was published. The appeal, filed at the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, resulted in a stay of Gievers’ ruling.
Asked to respond Tuesday to Morgan’s demand that the governor drop the appeal, Scott’s communications staff directed a reporter to a statement issued Friday evening by the health department: “This ruling goes against what the Legislature outlined when they wrote and approved Florida’s law to implement the constitutional amendment that was approved by an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority. The department has appealed the ruling, and this imposes an automatic stay.”
Scott’s opposition to smoking pot “could really hurt him in his election for Senate,” Morgan told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview following the press conference.
“Pure and simple --- politics. I think he’ll lose the election over it,” said Morgan, who had toyed with running for governor this year as a Democrat or as an independent before abandoning the idea.
When asked if Nelson supports allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana, a campaign spokeswoman said the senator "supports medical marijuana ordered by a physician, voted for the constitutional amendment and believes Floridians should have access to the medication recommended by their doctor."
According to Morgan, veterans are among the medical marijuana patients who want to be able to smoke the treatment. Veterans are seeking marijuana to address post-traumatic stress disorder, which is one of the debilitating medical conditions enumerated in the amendment.
“The veterans, they really want smokable marijuana. In a big, big way,” Morgan said.
Studies have shown that smoking marijuana has a different effect on users than other modes of consumption, such as vaping, Morgan said.
Scott -- who served in the Navy -- is wearing a Navy baseball cap “in almost every photo op I’ve ever seen him in,” Morgan said during Tuesday’s press conference.
“I would say to every veteran out there, every time you see him in that Navy hat, you remember this. He’s the one stopping you from getting the relief that you need,” he said.
Marijuana is a safer alternative to treatment of pain than highly addictive opioids, said Morgan, whose law firm, Morgan & Morgan, is among those representing states and local governments in lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Accusing Scott of needlessly “playing with political wildfire,” Morgan said the governor is “going to have to make a decision” about “whether he’s going to put politics over people.”
“Listen, Rick Scott is not a bad guy. I have had dinner with him. I have had conversations with him. I really like his wife. He really likes my wife. She’s a Republican. But this madness has to end. How much more money is the state of Florida going to spend chasing their tail so that a year goes by, and Cathy Jordan dies, and never sees what she fought for?” he said. Cathy Jordan, who has smoked pot for nearly three decades to combat symptoms caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of the plaintiffs in the smokable pot challenge.
Morgan predicted that Scott won’t lose any votes if he drops the appeal but could shift support to Nelson from independents, “compassionate Republicans,” and veterans if he doesn’t.
“I believe this issue could move them over,” he said.
More than 72 percent of voters supported the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 2, two years ago, which means that many Republicans supported the proposal, Morgan said.
Most people have already made up their minds on the issue of marijuana, GOP political consultant Rick Wilson told the News Service on Tuesday.
“There is a very large consensus in all the survey research that people have largely made up their minds on marijuana and that they really don’t have a big problem with it,” Wilson said.
While opposition to smoking marijuana “is not a net positive” for Scott, Wilson -- one of the architects of the #NeverTrump movement -- predicted the election “will end up being a referendum on Donald Trump and the economy rather than on reefer madness.”
But someone like Morgan deciding to use his political and financial clout to make marijuana a wedge issue “could raise the political cost of opposing medical marijuana,” Wilson said.