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Politics

Push for pot goes grassroots

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Published:   |   Updated: June 22, 2014 at 12:53 PM

— Veterans of the state’s citizen initiative process say there’s a sure way to kill any proposed constitutional amendment: Make it deeply partisan and dominated by special interests.

It may not be a coincidence, then, that supporters of medical marijuana have been cultivating grassroots support for their cause after the dominance of a multimillionaire, politically connected benefactor.

Amendment 2, which would legalize the cultivation, purchase, possession and use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases, goes before statewide voters in November.

This week, the “Yes On 2” group urged supporters to pledge a small amount — say, 50 cents — every time the opposing “Vote No On 2” campaign posts to Facebook or Twitter. That pledge would have cost a donor about $30 in the past 30 days, the group said.

United for Care, the umbrella group over the pro-medical marijuana movement, next weekend will hold what it calls the largest gathering of patients, activists and advocates in a “For the Patients” fundraiser in South Florida.

On the opposition side, a “Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot” campaign was launched earlier this month, with the Florida Sheriff’s Association and 45 partners vowing to educate voters about the dangers of the amendment. Polk County’s Grady Judd leads the sheriff’s group and calls the amendment “a misleading, well thought-out fraud.”

The campaign to legalize medical marijuana is being largely bankrolled by John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer and Democrat whose ubiquitous “For the People” ads have made him a household name. Morgan has pumped some $4 million into the effort, saying marijuana relieved the suffering of his father, a cancer patient, and a brother, who is paralyzed.

Morgan not only supports Charlie Crist, a Democratic contender for governor, he hired him to work at his law firm.

Opponents of medical pot just received a major boost with a $2.5 million contribution from Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul and Republican super-donor. Adelson has given $250,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign.

“My experience with these campaigns is that when people view that it’s Special Interest Group A versus Special Interest Group B, they tune out,” said Damien Filer, who has led successful citizen initiatives including the 2002 class-size amendment and a 2006 measure that restored funding for tobacco education after lawmakers stripped settlement money from a nationally acclaimed youth smoking prevention program. “They’re not interested in that. They’re not interested in what they see as political mudslinging.”

Filer pointed to the class-size debate, during which then-Gov. Jeb Bush became the face of opposition to the proposal to reduce the number of students in Florida classrooms. The governor railed about the cost and the tax increases it would require, at one point saying the proposal would “blot out the sun.”

“He made it all about the money,” Filer said. “The point I kept making was that you weren’t going to be able to talk people out of what they saw every day when they went and dropped their kids off at school.” Bush’s side lost.

If the “Yes on 2” movement’s dollar-here, dollar-there plea sounds familiar, consider the gold standard for small-money campaigning — the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president.

“Obama in ’08 was the first national campaign to truly exploit the Internet for small giving,” said Robin Rorapaugh, another veteran leader of state initiative campaigns. “If a person gives you a dollar, they will go vote. They’re invested at that point.”

Ben Pollara, United for Care’s campaign manager, acknowledged a conscious effort to build grassroots support for medical marijuana, but added, “It’s nothing new. We’ve been doing grassroots fundraising for a year.”

He said his group has raised a quarter-million dollars through online donations of under $200, and there are 3,000 individual donors to the campaign.

Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for “Vote No On 2,” said sending out an email asking for small donations does not mean her opponents are running a grassroots campaign funded by small donations.

“Over $4 million of their money has come from one donor,” she said in an email. “And that one donor continues to say he will spend millions more — they are not raising millions with small donations.

“In order for them to truly be turning to a grassroots funding structure they would have to now swear off the Morgan future millions, which I highly doubt will happen,” Bascom said.

She added her organization is “very thankful for the support we have received of late.”

Rorapaugh, who steered a successful 1996 effort to clean up the Everglades and ran the effort to retain several Florida Supreme Court justices in the last election cycle, had this advice for those pushing Amendment 2: “What they do not want this to become is a partisan issue. The best way to make sure this is not a partisan issue is that you have real people, real faces and real issues in the campaign.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7834

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