Bill Cotterell: Pot petition shows fallacy of signature campaigns

The deep-pocket proponents of legalized pot proved one fact of political life, our Capitol Columnist writes.

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Whether or not they get their constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot and persuade three-fifths of Florida voters to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the deep-pocket proponents of this pot proposal proved one fact of political life.

The public-initiative system for amending the state Constitution is not really grassroots (if you’ll pardon the expression) democracy in action. No matter the topic, it’s not really the voice of the public, the will of the people, rising up in righteous rage to put those bought-off politicians in their place. Forcing change by signing petitions is not a modern-day version of the New England town-hall meeting.

Recent columns by Bill Cotterell –

True, it allows just any average citizen to make state government do something – provided that average citizen has millions of dollars, is already in a position of political power, and has an idea everybody already likes. That happens, but the odds of such cosmic alignment are about the same as four lads from Liverpool just happening to meet and form the greatest rock band in history.

There are currently 28 petition campaigns on file with the Division of Elections, proposing constitutional amendments including banning abortion, restoring a woman’s right to choose, extending legislative sessions, fixing a glitch in the previous amendment that permits felons to vote when they get out of prison, making clean water a constitutional right and allocating a portion of gambling taxes for education. Maybe three of them have even the slightest chance of getting on the ballot next year.

Atop that list is the “Adult Use of Marijuana” proposal, which would permit people over 21 to buy pot without pretending it’s for medicinal use. Voters approved medical marijuana in 2016, but it took two tries to reach the required three-fifths of voter turnout.

Trulieve Cannabis, the state’s largest medical-marijuana provider, is behind the amendment. It has cleared the first two hurdles for getting an amendment on the ballot, pumping more than $39 million into its campaign and getting 909,219 voter signatures validated, according to Division of Elections records. That’s about 18,000 more than needed to get on the ballot.

Slam dunk, right? Not quite.

Campaign to legalize pot as example of money in politics

The “Smart & Safe Florida” campaign is awaiting arguments in the state Supreme Court on whether its referendum deals with only one subject and whether its ballot language tells the typical voter what the amendment does. That would seem simple enough — it lets you get stoned without a note from your doctor — but nothing is simple when lawyers and campaign consultants have tens of millions of dollars to work with.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody will argue that the amendment can’t pass constitutional muster. The state can contend that the proposal flunks on the single-subject rule, and that its ballot summary isn’t clear enough. Maybe for this one, they could argue that a certain percentage of voters may be a bit buzzed when arriving at the polls and need a very good summary.

Backers of the amendment will defend it on the lofty philosophy that adults should decide what to do with their minds and lungs. What’s really at stake, though, is this thought: ‘Hey, if businesses got this rich with medicinal marijuana, think how much they’ll make with recreational puffing.’

And it’s not like nobody’s already selling weed for fun.

Ballot initiatives as alternative to traditional lawmaking

I was covering the Capitol when they implemented public initiatives. Lawmakers piously spoke of public-spirited citizens asserting their rights when fellow legislators — either bought off by lobbyists or afraid of some hot topic — refuse to pass a law the regular way. Sure, you and your neighbor would just draft a petition, take it to PTA meetings and Little League games and pretty soon you’d have signatures for a do-it-yourself law.

In real life, that works if your pals have a few million bucks or hold high office and the time is right. 

Gov. Reubin Askew backed the Sunshine Amendment for open government in the Watergate era and voters responded. The trial lawyers and medical associations had multimillion-dollar duels over limiting jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. The Florida Lottery came about partly due to the promise of money for education, but mostly because companies handling ticket sales wrote big checks.

The pot plan certainly has more than enough money behind it. And results in other states indicate wide public tolerance, if not mellow acceptance, of the drug.

If the proposal gets past a very conservative Florida Supreme Court, the presidential election might not be the most interesting thing on the Florida ballot.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com.

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