Leaders: One legal pot petition flourishes
Another campaign says it won’t get signatures in time
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.