For years, the possibility of legalizing recreational adult-use marijuana in Florida was little more than an afterthought — but recently, momentum’s picked up. In 2016, Florida voters approved an initiative that legalized medical cannabis, only for state lawmakers to subsequently ban smokeable forms until earlier this year. Now, legal recreational marijuana in Florida may be a reality as soon as 2020.
One of the signs of cannabis-related change next year is the new political committee Make It Legal Florida, which registered with the state earlier this month. It’s chaired by Nick Hansen, a longtime advisor to Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who recently took on the role of southeastern director of government affairs at MedMen, the California company that’s attempting to take the retail pot world by storm. The company currently has a store in West Palm Beach and a delivery service in Orlando, and will soon have a chain of locations across the state (at least 11 additional stores are “coming soon,” according to MedMen’s website.) At this point, these dispensaries are for medical patients only.
Then there’s the advocacy group Regulate Florida, which is also backing a proposed 2020 amendment to legalize marijuana, has gathered more than 83,000 signatures so far, campaign manager and Tampa-based lawyer Michael Minardi tells Rolling Stone. Under Florida law, that’s enough to trigger a judicial review by the Florida Supreme Court and a financial impact review. From there, if successful, 766,200 signatures from at least 14 of the state’s 27 counties are required to get the referendum on the 2020 election ballot. “We’re very confident that we’ll pass the Supreme Court review,” Minardi says, adding that he thinks the economic review will also come out “very favorable in regards to the benefits it will provide to the economy” in Florida.
Then there’s Orlando attorney John Morgan, a brash, heavy-hitting financial power player in the Sunshine State and the co-founder of the class action and personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan. Notably in the weed world, though, Morgan was the funds-plugging maestro who spent millions of dollars of his own fortune to bankroll a 2014 push for medical marijuana in Florida, which barely failed to meet the required 60 percent supermajority threshold among voters. Morgan’s efforts were in part foiled by billionaire conservative Sheldon Adelson, who donated more than $5 million to the initiative’s opposition campaign. Righteously pissed off after spending roughly $4 million of his money in 2014, Morgan plugged about $7 million into the 2016 initiative to legalize medical marijuana, which 71 percent of Florida voters approved.
This year, however, he’d been largely silent, focusing instead on a 2020 initiative that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026. As late as June, he wrote on Twitter, to his 65,000 followers, “I support the full legalization of #marijuana. However, my plate is full w/ a living wage for Florida’s working poor. I can only slay one dragon at a time.”
Then, last week, he changed his tune. “I believe that #marijuana should be legal. I think we have time and I think there is money to get it done. I already have the minimum wage signatures.” He signed the tweet with his nickname: “#PotDaddy.”
“What changed my mind is those in the industry came to me and said, ‘Look, if we can come up with the money, will you help us lead the charge?’” Morgan tells Rolling Stone. He declined to say who, exactly, the industry insiders are, as did several others who work within the cannabis industry. “When the petitions are out there being signed, everybody will see who is behind it and what the vehicle is,” Morgan says. The members of the industry insiders’ group, as well as where their money is coming from, will be a matter of public record once they kick off their own petition gathering process.
Morgan believes what makes him a key figure in the fight for legal recreational weed in Florida is not just his history of going after anti-pot lawmakers — he called on former Gov. Rick Scott to drop the state’s appeal of a 2018 decision by a Tallahassee Circuit Court judge, which allowed for the sale of smokable medical marijuana — but his experience navigating the state’s ballot amendment process, which he has now done twice. His potential war chest, he claims, consists of over a million signatures and addresses of citizens who have signed his previous petitions. “Also I can use my platform and my bully pulpit to ride people,” he says, before claiming that he’s had hundreds of influential people reach out to him since he went public with his support and has since “forwarded [them] on to the powers that be.” But who are the so-called powers?
Asked about their influence in the coming months, a spokesperson with Make It Legal Florida provided a statement from Hansen praising their new ally. “John Morgan is a visionary. He has been an incredible advocate for Florida patients and used his platform and his resources to ensure they had access to medical marijuana treatments. Certainly, any initiative related to marijuana usage would be honored to have his support.”
Minardi also claimed his group, Regulate Florida, isn’t yet involved with Morgan, and has so far been unable to setup a meeting with the prominent attorney. Minardi did note, however, that he has recently spoken to Hansen. “I had a great conversation with Mr. Hansen last week. Basically he couldn’t release the language yet until they get it approved,” Minardi says, referring to how MedMen was among a group of entities that were looking into backing their own ballot initiative last week. As soon as it’s approved, Minardi continues, he says Regulate Florida has agreed to look over the language in the potential initiative to see if it’s something they’re comfortable throwing their support behind. “We just want to open this market and get it back to where it’s supposed to be — in the peoples’ hands and in the ground, not in monopolies’ hands,” Minardi says.
At the state level, there are possible allies for the cause to legalize marijuana. Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose pro-medical cannabis and hemp platform helped boost her bid as the only Democrat to win statewide office in Florida last year, tells Rolling Stone her main focus is on improving the state’s medical marijuana program. She is, however, in favor of cannabis’ “life-changing potential” for both patients and Florida’s economy, such as new tax revenue for education, infrastructure, affordable housing, and jobs, and the potential to improve the criminal justice system. “So I think people should absolutely have their say on bringing recreational marijuana to Florida,” Fried says.
Still, the pushback against legal recreational marijuana among other lawmakers is inevitable. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in March signed into law a bill that lifted the state’s ban on smokeable medical marijuana, has previously declined to support recreational adult-use marijuana under his tenure. The Florida Sheriff’s Association also opposed to the idea of even a medical cannabis program in Florida in 2016. (Neither Gov. DeSantis nor the Sheriff’s Association returned Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.)
In other words, the opposition to legal recreational marijuana in Florida will be strong. Not just in state, either. But nationally, too, as Sheldon Adelson’s funding of the opposition campaign to Morgan’s 2014 medical marijuana initiative demonstrates.
“What’s holding it up right now is this: There are a handful of filthy rich, old, old, old white [conservatives] that are the sugar daddies for many Republican politicians, who are admittedly — and I mean crazily — opposed to anything marijuana,” Morgan says. “So you take a guy like Sheldon Adelson — [the marijuana] topic sends him flying out of his wheelchair with his toupee on fire,” Morgan says. “So until they croak, for a better word, that’ll be the problem. The young Republicans like [Congressman] Matt Gaetz — he’s a champion for us. It’s the old, old, old Republicans.”
So speaks the man from his self-declared bully pulpit. In Florida, though, Morgan understands the financial mechanics it takes to push an initiative. He’s admittedly anxious about 2020 being too tight of a turnaround for the ballot initiative, especially after DeSantis signed into law House Bill 5, which complicates putting proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. He says it’ll take “big money” to push the effort over the line by the January 1st, 2020 deadline, after which the Florida Secretary of State gets 30 days to certify the required number of signatures.
But the momentum, it seems, is here.
“I’m not the money-man and I’m not the final decision maker,” says Morgan. “I’m the guy who’s walked through the forest before, who’s marked the trees with yellow ribbons and I knows the way. And I’ve got a flashlight — and a bullhorn.”
Correction: A previous version of this article quoted a statement from Hansen, and said it was provided to Rolling Stone through MedMen. It came through the organization Make It Legal Florida.