Policy: Law

Medical marijuana initiative could liven up Florida governor race

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Politics,Betsy Woodruff,Florida,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Marijuana,Medical Marijuana,Law,Rick Scott,Charlie Crist

Insert your favorite marijuana-related pun here: The Florida governor's race is blazing right along, the candidates are burning up the trail, the contest is really getting in the weeds, etc.

However you put it, a ballot initiative on medical marijuana could have a major effect on the re-election campaign of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

A businessman who made millions in the health care industry, Scott faces Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor now running as a Democrat after a failed Senate bid.

The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, also known as Amendment 2, would legalize medical marijuana for patients who get a recommendation from their doctors.

Scott is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors, and the pricey race will have no lack of national media attention.

But that doesn’t mean a little marijuana drama can’t make it even livelier.

Amendment 2 has already drawn big money -- Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson has put $2.5 million into efforts to fight the amendment, and prominent Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan has spent around $4 million in favor of it. Crist is an attorney at Morgan's firm, Morgan & Morgan, and has appeared prominently in many of its advertisements.

But medical marijuana legalization isn't a clear-cut partisan issue splitting both Democrats and Republicans.

According to Reuters, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, currently the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, lost Morgan's support for questioning the initiative and voting against pro-medical marijuana legislation in Congress.

Scott opposes Amendment 2, but he recently signed legislation that legalized the prescription of a strain of non-euphoric marijuana that can help treat epilepsy, Lou Gehrig's disease, and other ailments. The strain is low in THC and the bill only allows marijuana consumption through oil or vapors, but not by smoking, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

That sets up an interesting political dynamic for the November elections, and state political observers say it makes things particularly complicated for Republicans.

Conventional wisdom is that pro-marijuana legalization ballot initiatives increase Democratic turnout, as they can do more to energize young voters than individual politicians can. It remains to be seen just how much effect it will have in Florida, but it looks like the GOP has more to lose than Sunshine State Democrats.

“They’re only surefire voter-turnout mechanisms for Democrats if Republicans are dumbasses,” said Rick Wilson, a long-time Republican consultant in the state, of pro-pot ballot initiatives. “That’s the word you should actually use, because that’s the word I use in a briefing that I give. This is a classic case of, 'Don’t give your enemy a sword to cut off your head.' ”

If the amendment proves a helpful way for Democrats to paint Republicans as compassionless and pro-suffering, Wilson continued, then it could make things tough for Scott.

“Republicans should understand that society has changed on this question,” he said.

But pot problems for the governor aren't necessarily preordained. Mac Stipanovich, a long-time Republican strategist and lobbyist, said Republicans fall into two categories on the issue.

“The first one being, people who smoke marijuana aren’t going to vote,” he said, “and the second one being, well, we all smoke marijuana so it doesn’t make a difference!”

He added that the Republican-controlled legislature’s passage of the narrow medical marijuana law may have “sufficiently clouded the issue.”

“Nobody’s going to get a clear shot at anybody,” he said.

But it may sow conflict in some right-wing circles. One Tea Party leader said that the conservative activists he works with are sharply divided on the issue. Some who sympathize with the libertarian wing of the movement see medical marijuana legalization as a move in the right direction for personal freedoms.

But others are suspicious of the amendment and question it because it has Morgan's support. Scott’s opposition to the amendment won’t be a problem for them.

Given how competitive the Florida governor's race is, turnout will be key. A WFLA-TV poll from June 24 showed the incumbent leading by just one point. It also gives Crist a lead with young voters. WFLA-TV's second-latest poll, taken two weeks earlier than their latest, put Crist up 44-40.

So it’s an exciting race, to be blunt.

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Betsy Woodruff

Political Writer
The Washington Examiner

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