Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- The gloves are off in the Amendment 2 battle to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
The main pro-amendment group pleads for money for a final push while anti-amendment groups that have stayed largely in the shadows have come out swinging. Rhetoric is ramping up as each side takes potshots at the other's credibility. The election is Nov. 4.
Supporters shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact Floridians are overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana, said Ben Pollara, manager of United for Care, the pro-Amendment 2 campaign. "We can't take anything for granted."
Polls show a favorability rate ranging from 60-88 percent, but they are just a snapshot in time, Pollara said. Sixty percent is needed for a constitutional amendment to pass.
Success of the pro-amendment push depends on three factors, he said: Cash; how well voters can be educated and mistruths can be combated; and how successful they are in getting to the polls those who don't normally vote in non-presidential elections.
The anti-Amendment 2 faction might say the same. Forces voicing most opposition and working against legalizing medical marijuana include Vote No on 2 campaign; Don't let Florida Go to Pot coalition; and Florida Sheriffs Association.
"For us, it is critical that public safety and youth be our priority," said Nanette Schimpf, sheriffs association spokeswoman. The association leads the Don't Let Florida Go to Pot coalition, which has about 45 members, including anti-drug organizations.
Pro-amendment supporters say legalization of medical pot will provide relief and compassion for the sick.
Anti-amendment opponents say the motivation is to legalize pot smoking in Florida. They also say amendment language is vague.
The Vote No on 2 campaign has a website and video. The campaign claims these loopholes: No doctor's prescription required; definition of a debilitating medical condition can range from back pain to trouble sleeping; juveniles will be able to legally purchase it without parental consent; "caregivers" who dispense medical pot do not need medical training, and could be felons or drug dealers; no restrictions on location of "seedy" pot shops.
In a May 15 written statement rebutting Vote No On 2, Pollara calls the group's claims distorted, half-truths or lies.
Meanwhile, the Florida Sheriff's Association concentrates on three key arguments that echo Vote No on 2: No parental consent required for a minor's access; "caregivers" are not required to have background checks or training; and storefront dispensaries are the equivalent of pill mills.
United for Care counters a doctor's recommendation and certificate is needed to get medical marijuana and "under Florida law, barring a few extenuating circumstances, physicians are not allowed to provide medical treatment to minors without parental or guardian consent." The pill mill scenario is unlikely because the state Department of Health has to issue an application and regulatory structure.
The amendment defines debilitating medical condition as diseases including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis "or other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."
The politics of pot
The United for Care campaign is run by People United for Medical Marijuana, chaired by John Morgan, an attorney in Orlando. Morgan said he came on board after he saw how medical marijuana alleviated pain and suffering of his father, who died of cancer, and brother, who is a quadriplegic. Morgan funded the campaign with about $4 million of his own money.
Morgan also is a fundraiser for Democrats, including President Obama, and employs former governor Charlie Crist, touted as likely opponent against Gov. Rick Scott. Meanwhile, Pollara is a political consultant, lobbyist and was a member of Obama's 2012 National Finance Committee.
Vote No on 2 is funded with $100,000 from a political action committee called Drug Free Florida. The PAC was founded in March by Mel Sembler, a shopping center magnate and former ambassador who has raised millions for Republican candidates and presidents. Billionaire casino owner and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson also donated $2.5 million at end of May.
United for Care needs about $10 million to fund education, advertising and a campaign door-to-door, Pollara said. The campaign had raised just over $5 million, including Morgan's donation. But that money is nearly spent in the effort to get the petition on the ballot, Pollara said. The group has raised more than $841,000 since Jan. 1.
Pro-amendment supporters say Vote No on 2 lacks credibility because Sembler formerly ran a chain of juvenile drug rehab centers called Straight Inc. (1976-1993), which was sued multiple times for allegations of abuse and mistreatment.
Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Vote No on 2, said of Sembler: "He is our first of what will be many donors and one of Florida's most respected business, civic and community leaders. He and his wife Betty have spent the better part of their lives fighting drug abuse and helping families hurt by this problem."
Bascom also is registered as a lobbyist with the state, with clients ranging from a Miami tobacco corporation to the Florida Association of Health Plans Inc.
Pro-amendment supporters also criticize the choice of Carlton Turner as chairman of Vote No on 2, because of controversy over his comments linking use of marijuana to homosexuality in a 1986 Newsweek article. He directed the Drug Abuse Policy Office under President Ronald Reagan.
The controversy over Turner's comments was addressed in a 1986 Washington Post article, featuring rebuttal from Turner. The Newsweek story stated: "Turner offers scant scientific backing for his claims ... But he says that when he visits drug-treatment centers for patients under 18, he finds that roughly 40 percent of them have also engaged in homosexual activity. 'It seems to be something that follows along from their marijuana use,' says Turner." Turner issued a recent statement denying comments connecting marijuana use with being gay, saying his comments were distorted and taken out of context.
• For: United for Care campaign, People United for Medical Marijuana
• Against: Vote No on 2 campaign; Don't let Florida Go to Pot coalition; Florida Sheriffs Association