Recreational marijuana proposal in Florida clears its first hurdle

Large marijuana grow operation – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by Canna Obscura

Supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana for recreational use have cleared a first obstacle to appear on the ballot in 2024 by submitting a sufficient number of petition signatures to warrant a review of the proposal by the Florida Supreme Court.

On Thursday afternoon, 294,037 valid petition signatures had been presented by the “Smart & Safe Florida” political committee, which has received funding from the multistate cannabis business Trulieve. To assess the proposed language of the measure, a crucial legal stage in the procedure, the court must receive at least 222,898 signatures.

The largest medical marijuana business in Florida, Trulieve, has donated $20 million to the cause, covering all but $124.58 of the total sum gathered so far. By December 31, the committee had spent more than $19 million, almost all of which had gone toward collecting and verifying petitions.

The wording of the proposal will be scrutinized by the Supreme Court to make sure it only covers one topic and won’t deceive voters. In 2021, the justices rejected two initiatives that would have legalized marijuana usage for recreational purposes.

In order to appear on the ballot in 2024, the Smart & Safe Florida organization would need to gather 891,589 valid signatures in total, with a specific percentage of those signatures originating from at least half of the state’s congressional districts.

People over the age of 21 would be permitted to “possess, purchase, or use marijuana goods and marijuana accessories for non-medical personal consumption by smoking, ingestion, or other means” under the “Adult Personal Use of Marijuana” plan.

Any certified medical marijuana business in the state would be able to “acquire, produce, process, manufacture, sell, and distribute such items and accessories” under the proposal. There are 22 licensed operators in Florida right now. The proposal would prohibit anybody from cultivating marijuana plants for personal use.

Constitutional amendments must receive the support of 60 percent of voters in order to be approved.

Due to multiple amendments approved by Florida lawmakers in recent years designed to make it more challenging for proposals to get on the ballot and pass, the ballot-initiative process is an expensive and tough enterprise.

The rule that forbids petitioners from being paid per signature and mandates that employees be paid a daily or hourly salary may be the most difficult to implement. Petitioners who frequently move between states to gather signatures for ballot proposals must also register with Florida.

According to industry analysts, the cost of submitting proposals for a vote has more than doubled as a result of the restrictions on per-signature costs and other constraints.

For instance, proponents of a 2016 constitutional amendment that widely authorized the use of medical marijuana spent less than $14 million to get the proposal on the ballot and approve it with the support of more than 71 percent of voters.

In comparison, Smart & Safe Florida, which began its push in August, has already surpassed that sum.

“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 ongoing 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.

Another source of uncertainty is the Supreme Court’s review.

Justices ruled in June 2021 that the Sensible Florida political committee’s proposed legalization of recreational marijuana contained misleading ballot language. A recreational marijuana proposal from the committee Make It Legal Florida was turned down by the court two months earlier.

Supporters of the current proposal claimed that they looked to the court’s judgments from 2021 for advice. Legislators will also have the last say in how the marijuana sector is organized under the legislation.

In August, Kim Rivers, CEO of Trulieve, explained to the News Service that the nod to the Legislature was deliberate and cited the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be restricted to certain topics.

“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.”

In order to guarantee placement before voters, the Smart & Safe Florida committee must ultimately submit more than 1.1 million signatures.

“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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