Major Democratic donor John Morgan blasted the national party’s chair, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as an “irritant” who is becoming “irrelevant” after she voiced concerns about a medical marijuana proposal he helped put on Florida’s ballot this November.
“I know personally the most-powerful players in Washington DC. And I can tell you that Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn’t just disliked. She’s despised. She’s an irritant,” Morgan, an outspoken Orlando trial attorney, told the Miami Herald.
“Why she’s trying to undermine this amendment I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll tell you I will never give a penny or raise a penny for the national party while she’s in leadership. And I have given and helped raise millions.”
The tensions flared Friday morning after Wasserman Schultz’s office issued a statement saying she has “concerns” that the proposed constitutional amendment Morgan backs “is written too broadly and stops short of ensuring strong regulatory oversight from state officials.”
Morgan, who has plowed $4 million of his own money into Florida’s Amendment 2 campaign, countered by pointing out that the proposed amendment and a state Supreme Court ruling would limit medical marijuana only to those with “debilitating” ailments.
“Does she not respect our Supreme Court? Does she not know what ‘debilitating' means? I do,” said Morgan, also a top donor to President Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida. “What word would she prefer?”
Wasserman Schultz's office wouldn't comment further than her written statement.
In an email, the Democratic National Committee said that the congresswoman “was speaking as a mom and a member of congress on her personal concerns on a local issue. The DNC has not taken an official position on this ballot initiative. We leave it to the good people of Florida to make that decision.”
She issued her comments after a national medical-marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, targeted her Thursday in a South Florida TV ad for being one of 18 “out of touch” Democrats to vote in Congress against bipartisan legislation designed to stop the Drug Enforcement Administration from enforcing federal cannabis laws in states that have legalized it for medical or other reasons.
Wasserman Schultz said she didn’t like the congressional amendment because it “tied” the hands of law enforcement.
However, she did speak highly of a recently passed medical marijuana bill in Florida, which Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign, that would allow people with severe epilepsy to have access to a strain of low-THC marijuana nicknamed “Charlotte’s Web.”
That medical-marijuana bill passed this year after the GOP-led Legislature refused to even hear medical-marijuana issues for years.
Spurrring the Legislature: Morgan’s constitutional amendment as it headed to the ballot. Polls show it has support that ranges from more than 60 percent to about 88 percent. Constitutional amendments in Florida must pass with 60 percent of the vote.
With the passage of the Charlotte’s Web bill, some opponents of Amendment 2 say the Legislature's proposal removes some of the need for the broader Florida constitutional amendment that applies to other ailments.
Others worry that the Charlotte's Web bill might not be enough. And they note that the Legislature could repeal it at any time, unlike the constitutional amendment.
“As a constituent of Rep. Wasserman Schultz and the father of a little girl who suffers from terrible seizures that could be alleviated by the use of medical marijuana, I find her remarks extremely troubling and disappointing," Seth Hyman, a 50-year-old Weston father of 8-year-old Rebecca Hyman, said in a statement issued by United for Care.
"I don’t know how Congresswoman Schultz would feel if she was getting constant text messages from home every single day letting her know that her young child was suffering from yet another of hundreds of debilitating and potentially deadly seizures, but I suspect her view on Amendment 2 would be quite different," he said. "I hope no one in her family ever has to experience what my Becca does every day, and I hope that she reconsiders her position on this life or death issue.”
The Democratic donnybrook over medical marijuana is rare. Most Democrats largely back the measure, which has been more of a wedge issue dividing Republican social conservatives and libertarians-leaning conservatives.
However, the dispute does help Morgan's group, United for Care, in one regard: It makes the amendment drive look nonpartisan.
For months, Morgan and United for Care have been trying to beat back claims from some Republicans who say the amendment effort is designed to help Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist, who works at Morgan's firm. Opposition to Amendment 2 primarily comes from Tallahassee's Republican establishment and longtime GOP donor Mel Sembler, an anti-drug crusader.
Opponents say the amendment could let some teenagers get marijuana or allow felons to become legal pot dispensers. Morgan says opponents are using false scare tactics to keep sick people from getting their medicine.
Morgan, and medical marijuana advocates throughout the state, were taken aback by Wasserman Schultz’s comments for two major reasons: They sound like the talking points issued by the Republican-backed opponents of the initiative, and her statement appeared to pay short shrift to the Florida Supreme Court opinion that said the proposal is supposed to be limited to those with “debilitating” ailments.
The opinion clarified a major controversy over the amendment, which says it’s geared toward “cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”
The opposition – led by the Republican-led Legislature – said the “other conditions” was a loophole that would allow people with minor ailments to get medical marijuana. Two conservative justices agreed with that reasoning.
But the majority of the court, five liberals and moderates, specifically said the opponents were wrong.
“To the contrary,” the majority opinion said, “we conclude that an analysis of the term ‘debilitating’ is critical to understanding the intended scope of the proposed amendment, as a patient does not qualify under the text of the proposed amendment to receive a physician certification unless a licensed Florida physician makes a professional determination that the medical condition is 'debilitating.'”
The court’s opinion specifically said that “the proposed amendment is not open-ended because the general category of 'other conditions' that may qualify as a 'debilitating medical condition' under the terms of the amendment must be of the 'same kind or class' as those conditions specifically mentioned.”
The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion is just that, however, a high-court opinion.
But unlike other analyses of the proposed amendment, the court’s opinion is like a legal guidepost, called “dicta,” that can help dictate interpretations of the amendment if it passes and once the Legislature tries to implement it with statutes.
Wasserman Schultz, pointing out that she’s a “cancer survivor, mother and lawmaker,” said that she’s “acutely empathetic to the suffering of people with terminal illnesses and chronic pain. My view is that approval of the use of marijuana as a medical treatment should be handled responsibly and in a regulated manner that ensures its approval does not do more harm than good.”
That comment, too, outraged Morgan because, he said, the amendment doesn’t prohibit regulation. It’s just designed to make sure people can get the medicine they need if a physician believes it will help, he said.
Morgan said that Wasserman Schultz, a staunch supporter of Israel, should go to that country and review its longstanding research into medicinal marijuana, which is given to some people in hospitals.
After he saw her statement, Morgan said he grew so angry that he erased her contacts from his telephone. He said he heard that she plans to run for U.S. Senate some day, perhaps in 2016, and he’ll make sure to oppose her if she does.
“After this, she won’t get reelected to the state Senate,” Morgan said. He then compared her to Florida’s former outspoken tea party congressman and its Republican attorney general, who also tried to block the medical-marijuana amendment in court.
“She is the new Allen West of South Florida,” Morgan said. “She should just become a bridesmaid for Pam Bondi’s next wedding.”