Florida recreational pot proposal clears initial signature hurdle

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Cannabis plants at a marijuana grow house. By St. Pete Police (April 2016).

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the 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 the 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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