By Steven Nelson
Hundreds of paid canvassers are pounding the pavement across Florida as part of a petition drive that could result in state-regulated medical marijuana. Organizers of the campaign have until Feb. 1 to obtain the nearly 700,000 signatures required to land their proposal on Florida's 2014 ballot.
The campaign has already collected around 200,000 signatures since July – more than 100,000 of which have been validated by the secretary of state's office – leaving just three months to solicit signatures from 500,000 more registered voters.
"It's a big number we have to get between now and the beginning of the year, but we're confident we can do it," campaign manager Ben Pollara told U.S. News. "We have a statewide grass-roots volunteer effort going on that's bringing in five to 10,000 signatures a week and we just kicked back up our paid petition-gathering effort, which by the middle of November should be pulling in about 60 to 70,000 signatures a week."
Paid petition-gatherers are "working every corner" of the state, with an emphasis on urban areas, Pollara said.
"It's an ever-changing number, there could be 500 [paid canvassers] one day and 1,000 the next and 300 the day after that," he said. "We're a pretty huge state. In order to get the 683,149 signatures that are necessary... it's a multimillion-dollar operation."
The pro-medical marijuana campaign is working with contractors to offer the paid petitioning jobs. A Facebook page advertising such positions in Palm Beach says employees can earn between $15 and $30 an hour, well above Florida's $7.79 minimum wage.
Unlike many state-level marijuana campaigns, the Florida effort is largely bankrolled by one man, attorney John Morgan, who says his dying father used the drug. The usual cast of marijuana advocacy groups is not intimately involved in the campaign.
Pollara says Morgan has donated approximately 75 percent of funding to date.
A poll released Oct. 22 by Gallup found 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing use of recreational marijuana, not just medical marijuana – which historically has polled better. Amid surging support, legalization is where some of the largest advocacy groups are focusing. The Marijuana Policy Project, which was influential in the 2012 campaign to legalize pot in Colorado, is primarily focused on legalization initiatives in seven states and legislative attempts in five others. Only two states have legalized recreational marijuana use, compared to 20 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Legalization is "certainly something we get asked about," Pollara said. "The answer is that this is not a campaign for drug policy reform or a move toward full legalization in the state. This is about the thousands of people in the state of Florida who are suffering every day, whose lives could be made better through the use of medical marijuana. For a lot of those people you could legalize marijuana and they still wouldn't use it because it's not seen as a medicine."
If it's allowed on the ballot and approved by voters, the Florida law would allow doctors to determine whether an illness is severe enough to qualify a patient for a state-issued medical marijuana card, which would need renewal after two years.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, filed a challenge Oct. 24 with the Florida Supreme Court, claiming the language in the proposed initiative would lead to de facto legalization and "allow marijuana in limitless situations." Bondi alleges that the referendum is misleading and should be barred from the ballot. The court will hear arguments Dec. 5.
Pollara says Bondi's challenge was anticipated, and that she's wrong.
Unlike in California, where a medical marijuana ballot vote essentially legalized pot in the 1990s – with doctors writing dubious prescriptions for minor ailments – Pollara argues state regulation and the expiration of marijuana access for patients after two years will guard against abuse.
"We used California's model is in a lot of ways as a 'what not to do' when crafting a medical marijuana law, but the one thing that's similar is that yes, this will ultimately be up to the doctor and their patient," the campaign manager said. "Our position is: Who better to make a determination of whether you have a debilitating illness than a physician? It's not a decision that should be left up to the state legislature or the state bureaucracy."
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