by Amy Keller
Updated 8 months ago
In January 2013, just months after voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana use and Massachusetts approved a medical marijuana law, Ben Pollara began wondering how Floridians felt about the issue. So with some leftover funds from a super PAC he had managed the year before to help support Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election, the 29-year-old Coral Gables consultant decided to commission a poll.
“When I got the results back, I was pretty surprised at how positive they were,” says Pollara. According to the survey, 70% of Florida voters said they would support a plan to amend the state constitution to allow the medical use of marijuana.
Pollara shared the poll results with the Miami Herald, which trumpeted the findings with the headline “Poll: 7 in 10 back Florida medical marijuana plan, enough to possibly affect governor’s race.” At the prompting of a friend who’d read the Miami Herald story, Pollara decided to reach out to John Morgan of the Morgan & Morgan law firm to see if he was interested in getting involved in a campaign to legalize medical marijuana.
The personal injury attorney had a personal connection to the issue. Morgan had seen firsthand how smoking marijuana had eased his father’s suffering when he was dying from cancer and emphysema, the attorney says. The drug had also helped relieve the painful leg spasms his brother had after suffering a spinal injury from a lifeguarding accident at age 18. “I sent (Morgan) an e-mail, and he replied back almost immediately saying, ‘Mark my words, I’m going to spearhead this,’ ” Pollara says. “That was really the turning point.”
With Morgan on board, Pollara approached Kim Russell, then-director of People United for Medical Marijuana. Russell, a stay-at-home Orlando mom, had launched the group four years earlier, but the underfunded organization was struggling to collect the 683,000 signatures necessary to get the issue on the ballot.
Pollara told Russell that Morgan wanted to be the new chairman of the group and asked if she’d be willing to step aside. “She said yes,” he recalls. “She made me the treasurer that day and gave me the checkbook and named John the campaign chair.” Pollara and Morgan had their work cut out for them. The duo decided to discard 30,000 signatures that Russell’s team had already collected and hired Jon Mills, a former House Speaker and past University of Florida law school dean, to rework the proposal’s language to help ensure that it would pass muster at the Florida Supreme Court.
By late 2013, however, it was unclear whether they’d reach the signature threshold in time to get the amendment approved for the ballot.
With Morgan contributing nearly $4 million to the effort and paying up to $4 a signature, the group managed to collect 1.1 million signatures — far more than needed to force a vote on their proposed constitutional amendment. The measure cleared a final hurdle in January, when the Florida Supreme Court approved the wording of the medical marijuana initiative 4 to 3.
The political battle is far from done, however, and in the months leading up to the election, United for Care has shifted its focus from gathering signatures to mobilizing voters.
“Right now, we’re focused on rebuilding our campaign organization from a petition organization to a general election organization,” says Pollara, who cut his political teeth as a teenager volunteering for New Jersey’s Bill Bradley presidential primary campaign and interning on Bill McBride’s 2002 gubernatorial bid and has gone on to become a prominent Democratic fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and numerous Florida candidates.
Pollara says a key part of the effort now is bringing the volunteers who were previously active with the group back into fold. “When we were paying people for signatures on petitions, we lost a lot of volunteers,” he says. Pollara’s other big task — figuring out exactly who his voters are and making sure that they’re aware that the initiative is on the ballot.
That task is made somewhat easier, Pollara says, by the long list of registered voters who signed the petition to put the issue on the ballot. “We’re calling them; we’re knocking on their doors; we’re emailing them; and we’re trying to solidify our support among those 800,000 people who we have a pretty good idea are our supporters.”
Less clear is how aggressive the opposition will be. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Medical Association and others have argued that the amendment is too lenient and would open the door for anyone to smoke pot.
Those expected to put up a fight include the Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society from Drugs, two non-profits founded by Mel and Betty Sembler of St. Petersburg. The Republican couple has crusaded against drugs for more than 30 years after discovering one of their sons was smoking marijuana. In 2012, their group, Save Our Society from Drugs, was the biggest funder of Smart Colorado, a group that opposed the legalization of small amounts of recreational pot.
They will be hard-pressed, however, to match the financial firepower of Morgan, who in March told the Miami Herald he’s prepared to swap out some of the $20 million in TV ad time he reserves annually to run Morgan & Morgan ads to run medicalmarijuana ads.
Another unknown is how the Florida’s gubernatorial race will affect the initiative. Some Republicans have charged that the marijuana initiative is intended to help boost Charlie Crist’s campaign by attracting younger voters and liberals to the poll.
Pollara discounts that notion. In fact, he says, the cutthroat governor’s race could end up harming the marijuana initiative. “It’s not going to be a pretty race. It’s going to be nasty, and if anything, it dissuades our voters from showing up because it makes them so cynical about the whole process. It’s not like Barack Obama running on ‘hope and change’ or John McCain ‘taking our country back.’ This is going to be about as brutal television warfare politics as it gets.”