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Florida’s Pro and Anti-Marijuana Groups Stacking Chips In Days Before Vote

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As Floridians prepare to vote on their state’s medical marijuana initiative on November 4th, the support landscape is shifting almost too rapidly to follow. After polls at the end of 2013 revealed that an astounding 82% of residents favored a legal medical marijuana program, support has been slipping month to month.

In January, it dropped to 65 percent. When Fall 2014 came around, that went down further to 56 percent. With the vote a week away, the newest poll shows only 48 percent support. The change in opinion comes after months of warring ad campaigns between groups for and against the initiative, with the groups against stacking far more monetary contributions in their arsenal. With just a week left before the vote, it appears that money may actually achieve its goal of swaying the public against medical marijuana, and both sides are taking this last opportunity to stack favor by way of last minute contributions.

The largest contributor to Drug Free Florida, the group against the measure, is Sheldon Adelson, a Nevada casino tycoon. He shelled out $4 million throughout the campaign and added another $1 million to that sum this week. As of his last donation, Adelson covers 85 percent of the funding against. Because he’s not from Florida, that means that the vast majority of money raised against medical marijuana is coming from outside the state. The group for the measure, People United for Medical Marijuana, received 91% of its $7.6 million from individual Floridians — about 5,000 people. Only about 80 people donated the $5.8 million for the Drug Free Florida campaign.

To combat the power of such massive contributions aiming to hamper MMJ in Florida, donors from the cannabis industry are lending their support in the last days before the vote. Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech, a hydroponic supply and cultivation company, donated over $100,000 just a over a week before the November 4th vote. Peterson told me on the phone, “For a guy like Sheldon to dump $4-5 million into something is nothing. It’s like a regular person taking someone to In-And-Out Burger for 20 bucks.” Peterson decries the fact that out-of-state money is influencing the well-being of those Floridians in earnest need of medical marijuana. “All this billionaire money is coming in to essentially to rob patients of their access to clean and healthy medicine and push it back into the black market,” says Peterson. Other major donors who are upping their contributions in the weeks before the vote include high-powered Florida attorney John Morgan, who has been leading the medical marijuana charge, and Barbara Stiefel of  the Stiefel Laboratories family, who has donated nearly $1 million to date.

Although People United for Medical Marijuana has raised more dollars than Drug Free Florida, much of the pro-MMJ campaign funding has gone toward getting the initiative on the ballot in the first place. Drug Free Florida has spend a larger chunk of their funding on attack ads that warn Floridians against the dangers of marijuana, claims that are largely unfounded.

But which tactic will work? Judging by the current state of support numbers for the initiative, it appears that the negative ads are working. 60% of the vote is required for the amendment to pass, and the latest polls are showing that favor has slipped below that mark. If the initiative loses just a year after having over 80% support, it will prove the power of money in our legislative process and spell out a major setback for the medical marijuana movement overall. “It’s almost less of a Florida issue and more of a national issue,” Peterson tells me. “We just don’t want to see a lull in the momentum of legalization.”

No one expected a swing state Florida to adopt medical marijuana this early, but now that it’s a possibility, it has become a potential beacon for the movement in the widely anti-legalization American South. A victory for marijuana in Florida means seeing through the will of its residents, and a loss will signal that billions are worth more than opinions. We’ll find out what Florida decides on the matter next Tuesday.

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