Lead­ers: One le­gal pot pe­ti­tion flour­ishes

An­other cam­paign says it won’t get sig­na­tures in time

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Le­mon­gello

Two cit­i­zens cam­paigns to le­gal­ize recre­ational mar­i­juana in Florida are headed in op­po­site di­rec­tions, with one con­tend­ing it’s close to get­ting on the 2020 bal­lot and the other say­ing it’s un­likely to get the needed sig­na­tures in time.

Make It Le­gal Florida, backed and fi­nanced by the med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try, has gath­ered close to 600,000 sig­na­tures, chair­man Nick Hansen said Tues­day. That would be more than 75% of the 766,200 needed to get on the bal­lot in Novem­ber 2020, though only about 119,000 had been ver­i­fied Tues­day.

But Karen Gold­stein, vice-chair of Reg­u­late Florida, which backs more sweep­ing le­gal mar­i­juana laws said, “it ap­pears we’re go­ing to run out of time.” The group had about 92,000 ver­i­fied sig­na­tures as of Tues­day.

Gold­stein said her group is still col­lect­ing and sub­mit­ting sig­na­tures, adding she still has “a cou­ple thou­sand in my house. … But we’re not op­ti­mistic we’ll make the dead­line.”

One ma­jor ob­sta­cle to both cam­paigns and oth­ers is a can­vass­ing pe­riod that was sig­nif­i­cantly short­ened this year by the Leg­is­la­ture.

Cam­paigns used to have un­til Au­gust to gather the re­quired num­ber of sig­na­tures, but now they have un­til Feb. 1. Elec­tions of­fices are given 30 days to process, ver­ify and po­ten­tially re­ject bal­lots, so the real dead­line is Dec. 31.

“It ef­fec­tively cuts off six months of pe­ti­tion­ing,” said Gold­stein, who also serves as the deputy di­rec­tor of the pro-mar­i­juana group, NORML Florida. “It’s un­fair, but we’re not giv­ing up. … We know we have a lot of grass­roots sup­port.”

That type of sup­port, how­ever, is no match for pro­fes­sional can­vassers funded by large con­tri­bu­tions from the ma­jor med­i­cal mar­i­juana dis­trib­u­tors.

Make It Le­gal Florida has raised more than $2.8 mil­lion as of Oct. 31, largely from med­i­cal mar­i­juana com­pa­nies MedMen and Par­al­lel, for­merly known as Surterra.

The group has spent about $2.7 mil­lion of that money, though Hansen said it’s con­tin­ued to raise money at the same pace in No


“There’s no is­sue in funding,” said Hansen, also a re­gional di­rec­tor for MedMen

By com­par­i­son, Reg­u­late Florida has been gath­er­ing pe­ti­tions since 2016, rais­ing just $452,000 as of Oct. 31 from mostly small $20 to $50 do­na­tions. It’s spent around $159,000 in that time.

Make It Le­gal’s pro­posed amend­ment would al­low es­tab­lished med­i­cal mar­i­juana dis­trib­u­tors to sell recre­ational pot as well, a le­gal strat­egy Hansen has said would pass muster with the state Supreme Court.

Hansen’s op­ti­mism came as re­ports cir­cu­lated in the mar­i­juana com­mu­nity that the group had halted some of its can­vass­ing in the days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing.

Hansen said it was true some am­a­teur sig­na­ture gath­er­ers were told to stop last month, say­ing the group “made the de­ci­sion to let low-per­form­ing folks go. … Non-pro­fes­sional folks are dif­fi­cult to get out in force over Thanks­giv­ing, while pro­fes­sional can­vassers do come out – that’s what they do.”

The dis­par­ity be­tween the 119,000 ver­i­fied sig­na­tures and the 600,000 col­lected sig­na­tures, Hansen said, was be­cause thou­sands of bal­lots were either be­ing pro­cessed, be­ing mailed or were still await­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion at elec­tions of­fices.

The Or­ange County elec­tions of­fice has yet to process al­most all of the 6,538 Make It Le­gal pe­ti­tions re­ceived in seven bun­dles, the of­fice es­ti­mated, the lat­est of which ar­rived Nov. 26 and 27.

Hansen was crit­i­cal of how slowly some of the larger county of­fices were pro­cess­ing sig­na­tures, claim­ing that Or­ange had been told by the state Depart­ment of Elec­tions to hurry things up.

Or­ange Su­per­vi­sor Bill Cowles, how­ever, said his of­fice “had not had any con­ver­sa­tions with any­body at the Florida Depart­ment of Elec­tions telling us to ex­pe­dite our work.”

Cowles said the of­fice is “con­stantly av­er­ag­ing over 30,000 [sig­na­tures] in house at all given times” from all of the many on­go­ing pe­ti­tion cam­paigns, and em­ploy­ees are work­ing nights and week­ends to process them.

“We are very aware of what the dead­lines are and we are work­ing [hard.],” Cowles said. “When all is said and done on Feb. 1, feel free to make a re­quest ask­ing how much over­time was spent get­ting this done.”

Even when pro­cessed, cam­paigns should al­ways ex­pect a large amount of sig­na­tures to be re­jected. In Mi­ami-Dade, al­most 6,000 of the more than 15,000 sig­na­tures it pro­cessed for Make It Le­gal were deemed un­ac­cept­able. Sig­na­tures can be re­jected for not match­ing those on voter files or for not match­ing ad­dresses on file, among other rea­sons.

Hansen aid his group’s ver­i­fied sig­na­ture num­bers will still go up over the course of the next month, and Jan­uary should see “a huge jump” as of­fices work to process the bal­lots be­fore the dead­line.

“We should have gath­ered enough sig­na­tures by Dec. 31 to make the dead­line,” Hansen said.

Mean­while, Gold­stein said while Reg­u­late Florida’s cam­paign con­tin­ues for now, if it didn’t make the 2020 bal­lot it would carry on to an­other year.

“We’ll come back with more funding, and we’ll get it done [next] time,” she said.

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