Ganja Vs. Geezers in the Sunshine State

John Morgan is one of Florida’s best-connected trial lawyers. Now he’s putting his clout on the line to pass a bill that would legalize medical marijuana.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

A powerful Florida trial lawyer is optimistic that his pet project, an initiative to allow medical marijuana in the state, will pass Tuesday despite opposition from voters “who will be fucking dead in three years.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, John Morgan, a close ally of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, said that his polling had the ballot measure, which needs at least 60 percent support to pass, netting around 61 or 62 percent of the vote. And he was bullish on Republicans turning out to support the initiative, particularly libertarians, “a lot of whom are just far-right crazies but they’re absolutely for it… the Rand Pauls of the world are all for it.”

Morgan has long been a power player in Florida politics and is closely tied to Crist, the former Republican governor now running as a Democrat to lead the state again. Despite Morgan’s deep pockets and political clout, the medical marijuana initiative, which was once considered a shoo-in to become law, looks increasingly less likely to pass the 60 percent threshold.

The problem, according to some Morgan detractors, is that the vote has been less a referendum on cannabis and more a referendum on Morgan, who is funding the ballot measure.

In particular, a video of an apparently inebriated Morgan has embarrassed supporters of the referendum. In it, Morgan starts off by proclaiming, “I went down to the Outback Steakhouse. I got fucked up and now I’m back in here.” He then suggests that he might “smoke a lot of grass” later and urges those in attendance to vote in blunt terms: “If you motherfuckers don’t get out and vote… fuck it all… we can’t win.”

The video alienated many Republicans, reducing potential support for a ballot measure that prominent outside pro-marijuana groups had already backed away from. One well-connected Florida political consultant went so far as to dismiss the entire effort as “a vanity project for John Morgan... that has been ensnared in gubernatorial politics.”

Despite this skepticism, Morgan, who says he was inspired to fund the measure because his brother Tim, a quadriplegic, relies on it for pain relief, says it can still win Tuesday. Some voters, he explained, won’t support it because of law-enforcement opposition to the measure. He described these voters as the kind of people who see a “sheriff with a badge and follow him off a cliff with Thelma and Louise.” He also said voters “who will be fucking dead in three years” and need “[medical marijuana] more than anybody” may oppose the measure because “they don’t know the difference between marijuana, LSD, and heroin. “

Morgan also pushed back at Republican claims that his backing for the ballot measure is part of “a grand plan to draw sporadic voters out of the covers so Charlie Crist can eke out victory.” He pointed out “last summer I had dinner two times with [Democratic Florida Senator] Bill Nelson trying to get him to run for governor… if you really think about it, if I had wanted to help Charlie Crist, I would have just written him a check for $5 million.”

But he argued that the issue does motivate otherwise unlikely voters and could be a deciding factor in a close race. Morgan suggested that the measure might have been more successful in his “conservative and anti-Obama” home state of Kentucky, and that Kentuckians would vote to straight-up legalize marijuana. In his description, “Kentucky is where Rand Paul lives, [and he] is the father of the libertarian wing of Republican Party. Kentucky grows tobacco. Eastern Kentucky is lit up with meth labs. Everybody’s drunk in Kentucky.”

“I urged the campaign of [Democratic Senate candidate Alison Grimes] to test it out and they didn’t,” Morgan noted, mournfully.

So far, the issue doesn’t seem to be inspiring many Floridians. Early-voting turnout among people aged 18-25 is anemic and, according to an independent poll conducted by Democratic pollster Tom Eldon that was provided to The Daily Beast, support is down to just 55 percent for the initiative. And among those who have already voted, support for the ballot measure drops to 51 percent.

The initiative’s sagging fortunes prompted Kevin Sabet, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, to preemptively crow.

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Sabet says the Florida ballot measure was a Trojan Horse for legalization and voters were seeing it for what it was. He added that “this characterization of inevitability [of the legalization of marijuana] is about to be halted.” However, voters’ view of the ballot measure has been influenced by $5 million campaign against the initiative, which was heavily funded by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

The irony is that, even if the ballot measure fails, it is still almost certain to garner support from a majority of voters. As Morgan notes, “medical marijuana will be more popular than anyone running for governor.”

And there appears to be some political will to loosen restrictions on medical marijuana. The Republican-controlled legislature already took one small step toward legalizing medical marijuana this year when the legislature passed a bill to allow “Charlotte’s Web,” a single strain of cannabis used to treat children with epilepsy.

But, while Floridians appear to be warming to medical marijuana, there’s a good chance that Morgan’s initiative will go down in flames Tuesday. Because even if a majority of Florida voters want to go one toke over the line, it will likely end up just shy of 60 percent.