Legalizing marijuana divides Democrats, GOP candidates for governor

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The four Democrats running for Florida governor all favor some degree of legalizing or decriminalizing recreational marijuana use — but the state’s most prominent pro-pot advocate is not impressed.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King have made legalizing, regulating and taxing personal marijuana use part of their campaign platforms. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine “personally” favors legal weed, his campaign says, but he wants voters to give their blessing first through a statewide referendum. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham supports decriminalization, but wants to wait until a new medical marijuana law is implemented before considering full legalization.

The two Republican gubernatorial candidates — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast — oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use.

Attorney John Morgan, a major Democratic fundraiser and the force behind Florida’s successful 2016 medical marijuana referendum, called Graham and Levine too timid on the issue while pooh-poohing the stances of Gillum and King.

“You have two candidates who are running far behind who’ve got nothing to lose by taking this position,” Morgan said of Gillum and King. “And you’ve got two candidates who think they’re going to be the nominee and are running a general election strategy.”

Morgan, who last year toyed with the idea of running for governor, so far isn’t backing any gubernatorial candidates. And after spending about $7 million on medical marijuana efforts in 2014 and 2016, Morgan told The Palm Beach Post he sees no need to open his checkbook for another pot referendum because he believes it’s “inevitable” that recreational marijuana use will become legal in the next few years.

Instead, Morgan is focusing on getting a question on the 2020 ballot to raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Polls have shown a majority of Florida voters support treating marijuana like alcohol or tobacco.

A University of North Florida survey in February found 62 percent in favor of “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older.”

But that level of support — measured without any of the organized counter-messaging that would inevitably arise in a referendum battle — doesn’t bode well for winning approval for a pro-pot amendment to the Florida constitution. It takes 60 percent support from voters to approve a constitutional amendment, and past polls have tended to overstate the support marijuana questions end up getting at the ballot box.

A July 2014 Quinnipiac University poll, for example, showed 88 percent support for a medical marijuana amendment in Florida. But the referendum got 57.6 percent support in that year’s general election, falling 2.4 percentage points short of the constitutional threshold. Two years later, medical marijuana was approved in Florida when 71 percent of voters supported a second Morgan-backed ballot question.

Eight of the nine states that have legalized non-medicinal marijuana have done so via referendum, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Supporters of legalizing pot for recreational use in Florida didn’t come close to getting the 766,200 signatures needed to put a question on the 2018 ballot. A leader of that effort, Tampa-area attorney Michael Minardi, said his Regulate Florida group is now shooting for 2020.

Despite marijuana’s favorable polling numbers, Minardi lamented that few political candidates have embraced the issue.

“Unfortunately, candidates still do fear getting a bad name or being stereotyped or ostracized by some of their constituents for supporting this issue,” Minardi said. “Candidates are just afraid to take that plunge.”

In Miami Beach, Levine voted for a 2015 ordinance that gives police the discretion to issue a $100 civil citation rather than make an arrest on a criminal charge for a person possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana.

“He personally believes it’s time for legalizing marijuana and investing those revenues into the state budget. But he wants to make sure a big policy item like that is approved by the voters,” said Levine campaign consultant Christian Ulvert.

When the issue came up during an April debate, Levine highlighted his past support for decriminalization and said: “If the people of Florida vote in a referendum that they want it and I’m the governor I will carry it forth immediately.”

In the same debate, Graham said: “I believe we have got to get the medical marijuana firmly implemented and have everyone take advantage of it and then we can talk about further steps.”

Morgan slammed her on Twitter afterward.

“If @GwenGraham is a no on full legalization, I am a no on Gwen. She is a friend but not a friend to those incarcerated for pot crimes: the poor, minorities, young people,” Morgan tweeted.

Graham tweeted in response that she is “for getting medical marijuana done in the broadest possible way to ensure patients have access to the medicinal products they choose, including smokable. And I’m for decriminalizing, because no one should have their lives ruined or go to jail over marijuana.”

Gillum first came out in January for legalizing and taxing pot. Tallahassee, where Gillum has been a city commissioner or mayor since 2003, does not have its own ordinances on marijuana but follows state law, under which possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine.

Gillum has not pushed for decriminalization or legalization in the city because “it never came up as a big issue…the mayor had other focuses on criminal justice reform,” Gillum campaign spokesman Geoff Burgan said. Burgan noted a “ban the box” program in which the city removed a question about past criminal convictions from its employment questionnaire to eliminate an initial hurdle for ex-offenders seeking municipal jobs.

King called marijuana legalization “the issue I’ve most evolved on” and announced his support for legal pot this month, tying it to a package of criminal justice reform proposals.

“This didn’t begin as a passion issue. I’ve never smoked marijuana, I have no intention of ever smoking marijuana…I decided that legalizing it, regulating it and taxing it ultimately was the future,” King said.

Any effort to make pot smoking legal can expect opposition from groups like the Tampa-based Drug Free America Foundation.

“It’s a business. So you’re giving the OK for an industry that’s going to be marketing an addictive substance,” said the group’s executive director, Amy Ronshausen. “We’re going to see more societal costs, just like we do with alcohol and tobacco…We don’t bring in nearly enough from the taxation of those products.”