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Battle lines intensify in marijuana debate

The battle over medical marijuana in Florida officially lit up Tuesday when a state sheriff’s association launched an “education” campaign to oppose it, two polls show the proposal remains widely popular,  and an out-of-state casino magnate cut a $2.5 million check bankrolling the opposition effort.

The $2.5 million contribution by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire and a heavy contributor to Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election effort, not only juices the anti-marijuana movement, it effectively brings the medical marijuana debate into the governor’s race.

The largest proponent of the amendment so far has been John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer and chief supporter of Scott’s Democratic rival, Charlie Crist.

Morgan, a Democrat also employs Crist at his law firm, spent $4 million bankrolling United For Care, the petition-initiative that brought the constitutional amendment to the November ballot. He has vowed to spend more to get the 60 percent majority needed for it to become law.

Many Democrats believe the amendment will drive sympathetic voters to the polls in support of Crist. While a newly-formed group backed by Adelson, the Drug Free Florida Committee, was started by long-time GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler and his wife Betty. It has raised $2.7 million so far and its top donors have been primarily Republicans.

Also Tuesday, Scott announced he had raised $1 million in his campaign for the month of May and the Republican Party of Florida raised $3.4 million. Crist announced he had raised more than $2 million during that same period.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, a medical doctor, fund two drug treatment clinics in Nevada and Israel, known as the Adelson Clinic.

The couple also provides funding for marijuana research. According to a study, led by the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases at Tel Aviv University, “some of the chemical compounds found in marijuana can help treat MS-like diseases in mice.”

Meanwhile Tuesday,  a separate coaltion of of anti-marijuana activists on launched a campaign to urge people to vote no on the marijuana amendment, which will be Amendment 2 on the ballot.

Named “Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot,” the group relies on the same claims that opponents used when they argued before the Florida Supreme Court that the amendment will open the door to “unfettered” access to marijuana because of a poorly-worded amendment and loosely regulated system.

In January, the Florida Supreme Court rejected the claims by opponents that the amendment will enable the backdoor legalization of pot when it ruled 4-3 that the amendment was narrowly drawn to limit all use to debilitating illnesses.

“This amendment as a matter of fact is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,”  said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association.

He warned that the proposed amendment is “cleverly-written” for “use and abuse,” will lead to children legally obtaining marijuana and predicted crime rates will soar. “You will pay more taxes because it’s going to take more policing,’’ he said.

The dire predictions are rejected by advocates as hyperbole and are not shared by most Floridians.

Two recent new polls show overwhelming support for the initiative, which will be on the November ballot as Amendment 2.

A poll released Tuesday by United for Care found that about 70 percent of likely Florida voters support the proposal while another poll released Tuesday, by Public Policy Polling, found that amendment would garner about 66 percent support.

“This support is broad-based and spans the electorate regardless of partisan, regional, or racial lines,” pollsters Anzalone Liszt Grove Research/Public Opinion Strategies wrote in an analysis of the United for Care survey.

But Calvina Fay, director of the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America which is also funded by Sembler, predicted the amendment would lead to “the Wild Wild West of potent marijuana products.” She said “there literally could be drug dealers that could administer this.”

The amendment requires doctors and patients to be certified before receiving marijuana through authorized dispensaries. It names nine specific medical conditions: cancer, glaucoma, human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“They appear to be intent on confusing voters,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care. “I think Florida voters are smarter than what the opponents think.”

“Our opponents can keep trotting out the same discredited talking points for months but the people of Florida are smarter than that and will approve Amendment 2 this fall,” he said. “And poll after poll shows that.

This United for Care survey showed that Democrats support the proposal the most, 75-23 percent. Republicans support it the least, but still strongly (64-34). And independent and no-party-affiliation voters have mid-level support, 72-27.

The poll tested supported by media market as well. Tampa Bay: 71-28 percent. Orlando: 72—26. Jacksonville: 71-27. West Palm Beach 68-30. Miami-Fort Lauderdale: 68-29.

One reason the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market’s support is so low relative to the rest of the state: Cuban voters, who tend to be social conservatives and back the measure the least, 53-43 percent.

A Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll of just registered Miami-Dade County voters conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International also showed that Cuban-American support was the lowest: 38 percent, with 62 percent opposing the amendment.

Overall, in Miami-Dade, that poll found support in the county was just 54-46 percent.

Opponents of the proposal, known as Amendment 2, highlighted the relatively weak support found in the poll of just Miami-Dade voters.

“This Amendment is vulnerable and can be defeated, despite the millions of dollars that have already been spent on it,” Sarah Bascom, Vote No on 2’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement. “It also means that once Floridians start to learn the truth about the Amendment and are educated on the loopholes, support drops.”

Staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.