The You Tube video begins with footage of a man and woman in white lab coats behind a pharmacy counter. An ominous male voiceover says, “This is a pharmacist. Qualifications: 4 years of medical training and 2,000 hours of clinical hours.”
The 30-second spot then cuts to a heavy-set dude with a ponytail handling hefty-sized buds of marijuana from a glass jar. The same voice warns, “This is a budtender. Qualifications: No medical training and no clinical experience. But knows a lot about pot firsthand!”
The propaganda piece ends with the narrator nailing the point home: Medical marijuana in Florida will be dispensed by budtenders in pot shops instead of pharmacists in pharmacies.
“That’s not medicine,” the man says. “It’s dope dealers with store fronts. Vote no on Amendment 2.”
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For the second time in two years, a coalition of drug warriors bankrolled by the nation’s richest gambling peddler aims to derail an overwhelmingly popular ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. In 2014, advocates in the Sunshine State came within three percentage points of legalizing cannabis use for sick people. In fact, more people voted for medical marijuana (57.6 percent) than folks who voted to keep Gov. Rick Scott in office (48 percent).
But because Florida has a draconian law requiring that constitutional amendments pass by 60.1 percent of the vote, the campaign to make medical marijuana legal in the Sunshine State fell just short. But this time around, organizers are feeling confident about winning—even in the face of a negative barrage of television ads and campaign mailers being concocted by the Drug Free Florida Committee, which has received a total $6.5 million from billionaire Las Vegas casino developer Sheldon Adelson over both campaigns.
“We have to be more competitive on television,” says Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the pro-medical marijuana committee United For Care. “That was the big lesson from the last campaign. We don’t need to match them dollar for dollar. But we have to communicate our message that marijuana is a safe, effective treatment that helps people who are sick and suffering.”
The ads produced by Drug Free Florida hammer the misconception that the ballot language would allow a freewheeling unregulated medical marijuana market like in California, Pollara says. In reality, Florida health officials will likely create a system more restrictive than regulated markets in Colorado and Washington, the two states that have pioneered marijuana legalization in recent years.
It would be modeled after the low-THC, high-CBD medical-marijuana program enacted by the state legislature in 2014, Pollara explains. The program limited production of cannabidiol to five companies selected by the state after meeting a strict set of requirements, including being in business in Florida for at least 30 years.
“I don’t think that kind of free market in Colorado and Washington will happen in Florida,” Pollara says. “The inclination on the part of state government is to make any medical-marijuana system restrictive and create gigantic barriers to entry on the business side.”
However, the amendment will certainly protect sick people like Bridget Kirouac, a 54-year-old Martin County woman who suffers from plethora of ailments including bone spurs, fibromyalgia and gastritis, Pollara said. On September 16, a jury found Kirouac not guilty of marijuana cultivation after she used Florida’s medical necessity law as a defense.
In May 2014, police arrested and charged Kirouac, who had been a medical marijuana patient in Maine, after finding 20 pot plants in her home, as well as harvested cannabis and tincture. “Without Amendment 2, patients in our state are still subject to arrest and lengthy, costly legal battles, which they have no guarantee of winning,” Pollara says. “And as the judge in Bridget’s case pointed out, her acquittal does not mean she is free to continue to use medical marijuana.”
But Drug Free Florida is determined to prevent Kirouac and others like her from accessing medical marijuana. The committee was founded by St. Petersburg real-estate developer Mel Sembler, who has kicked in $1 million of his own money to fight United For Care. Sembler, a former U.S. ambassador, is also close buddies with Adelson, whose reported net worth of $31 billion is derived from casinos in Las Vegas and Maca—the profits, that is to say, of a vice that afflicts some six million adults, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Adelson gave $1 million to Drug Free Florida in September after donating $5.5 million to Sembler’s effort in 2014. Other medical marijuana opponents include the 20,000-member Florida Medical Association.
Before making money as a builder, Sembler and his wife ran a juvenile drug rehab company, STRAIGHT, Inc., which closed in 1993 after 16 years in business following a criminal investigation that documented sexual abuse, beatings, and torture committed by staff against patients. The probe also found financial irregularities like commingling of federal grant funds. However, the Semblers were never criminally charged.
To beat Drug Free Florida’s tactics, United For Care has to raise between $2.5 million to $3 million for television and radio ads, Pollara says. “We will be competitive to win this thing,” he boasts. “It was an uphill battle for the opposition in 2014 despite them outspending us by an outrageous amount.”
This year, voter sentiment seems to be on Pollara’s side. Frank Orlando, a political science professor and director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute, said support for the medical marijuana amendment has been growing over the last four months. A poll he took in September showed 68.8 percent of Florida voters were in favor, a four point bump from a survey he took in June.
And the latest polls suggest Amendment 2 would get a solid 70 percent of the vote were balloting held today.
Orlando also said presidential elections in Florida tend to draw out more younger voters, who are more likely to cast a ballot for medical marijuana.
“It appears as though medical marijuana supporters will get the victory they were denied by voters in 2014,” Orlando said. “The higher the turnout among young voters, the better the chance that this amendment passes.”
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