Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Florida recreation­al pot proposal clears hurdle

- By Jim Saunders

TALLAHASSE­E — Backers of a proposed constituti­onal amendment that would allow recreation­al use of marijuana have passed a preliminar­y hurdle to get on the 2024 ballot, submitting more than enough petition signatures to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the measure.

The “Smart & Safe Florida” political committee, which has been bankrolled by the multistate cannabis operator Trulieve, had submitted 294,037 valid petition signatures as of Thursday afternoon, according to the state Division of Elections website. At least 222,898 signatures are required for the court to review the proposed wording of the measure, a key legal step in the process.

Trulieve, Florida’s largest medical-marijuana operator, has contribute­d $20 million to the effort —- all but $124.58 of the money raised thus far. The committee had spent more than $19 million as of Dec. 31, with almost all the spending related to petition gathering and verificati­on.

The Supreme Court will review the wording of the proposal to make sure that it includes only a single subject and would not mislead voters. Justices rejected two ballot proposals in 2021 aimed at allowing recreation­al use of marijuana.

If the Smart & Safe Florida committee gets Supreme Court approval, it would need to submit a total of 891,589 valid signatures to get on the 2024 ballot, with certain numbers of signatures coming from at least half of the state’s congressio­nal districts.

Under the “Adult Personal Use of Marijuana” proposal, people 21 or older would be allowed “to possess, purchase, or use marijuana products and marijuana accessorie­s for non-medical personal consumptio­n by smoking, ingestion, or otherwise.”

The proposal also would allow any of the state’s licensed medical-marijuana operators to “acquire, cultivate, process, manufactur­e, sell and distribute such products and accessorie­s.” Florida currently has 22 licensed operators. The initiative would not authorize people to grow marijuana plants for personal use.

Passage of constituti­onal amendments requires approval from 60 percent of voters.

The ballot-initiative process is a costly and complicate­d endeavor, due to several changes passed by Florida lawmakers in recent years aimed at making it more difficult for proposals to get on the ballot and to pass.

Perhaps the most challengin­g of the restrictio­ns prohibits petition gatherers from being paid by the signature, which requires workers to be paid a daily or hourly wage. Petition gatherers, who often travel from one state to another working on ballot initiative­s, also must register with Florida.

The ban on per-signature payments and the other requiremen­ts have more than doubled the cost of placing proposals on the ballot, experts in the industry say.

For example, supporters of a 2016 constituti­onal amendment broadly authorizin­g medical marijuana spent less than $14 million to put the measure on the ballot and get it passed by more than 71 percent of voters.

In contrast, Smart & Safe Florida has already eclipsed that amount after starting its drive in August.

“For those who wanted to make it more costly and more difficult, they can drop the mic. Mission accomplish­ed, as it were,” Steve Vancore, a spokesman for Trulieve, told The News Service of Florida.

The current petition-gathering process is “very time consuming, very difficult,” Vancore said.

“It’s far more expensive and far more complicate­d than even us going into this thought it would be. And that’s why … $20 million, six months in the field, not even halfway there (with signatures),” he said.

The Supreme Court review also creates uncertaint­y.

In June 2021, justices said a recreation­al-marijuana proposal by the political committee Sensible Florida included ballot wording that would mislead voters. The court two months earlier rejected a recreation­al-pot proposal by the committee Make It Legal Florida.

Backers of the current proposal said they relied on guidance from the court’s 2021 rulings. The proposal also gives lawmakers the final say on how the marijuana industry is structured.

Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers told the News Service in August the nod to the Legislatur­e was intentiona­l and pointed to the requiremen­t that proposed constituti­onal amendments be limited to single subjects.

“Clearly this language was written with prior court decisions in mind. The lawyers read carefully what the court’s admonition­s were on the previous ones and then took that guidance and put it in this language now,” Vancore said Thursday. “Legal teams have reviewed, reviewed, reviewed and… attempted not to make those same mistakes.”

Ultimately, the Smart & Safe Florida committee’s goal is to submit more than 1.1 million signatures to ensure placement before voters.

“Do I think they will make it? Yes. But it’s going to require significan­t financial resources. I think the money will be there. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for this,” Vancore said.

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