TALLAHASSEE — In Florida, the cannabis industry is betting on a surprising voter demographic to turn out for an effort to legalize pot next year — aging conservatives.
A poll commissioned by a cannabis industry group shows significant backing for legalization from supporters of President Donald Trump, who is ramping up his 2020 campaign in the battleground state where elections are won on razor-thin margins and turnout is everything.
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If the numbers bear out, Trump voters could help set a record for popular support of recreational marijuana use. The poll, conducted by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates on behalf of the Make It Legal Florida Committee, found that 67 percent of likely Florida voters support legalizing recreational pot use. More than half of them — 57 percent — are Trump fans.
“You need support across the board to make it,” said Ben Pollara, a Democratic political consultant who ran a medical cannabis campaign that won support from 71 percent of Florida voters in 2016. “One group or one party isn’t going to get you to that high a number.”
Cannabis companies have had explosive growth in recent years as states have moved to decriminalize pot. Now they see the 2020 election as an opportunity to expand their markets even more. After legalization bills hit a wall this year in several state capitals, including New York and New Jersey, the industry is taking the question to voters themselves, with ballot initiatives in a half-dozen states.
Petitions have been filed in Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota, but efforts are gaining traction mainly Arizona and Florida, where industry players are organizing. The ultra-hip MedMen Enterprises is one of at least three companies behind the Smart & Safe Arizona initiative, and it’s partnered with Surterra Wellness, purveyor of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer brand, in Florida too.
Floridians have settled into an easy relationship with pot since voters approved the drug for medical use in 2016. Despite efforts since by counties and towns to push the industry onto back streets and out of the public eye, pot has become mainstream.
Buffett — 72 and synonymous with Key West — markets Coral Reefer in the state, where almost 269,000 patients, many of them from Buffett’s generation, are registered to use medicinal pot. Legal users have more than doubled over the past year, and the state medical marijuana registry added 54,000 patients between just May and October.
Tallahassee, the capital, is home to three dispensaries along a mile stretch of a busy downtown thoroughfare. Fluent, a division of Cansortium Inc., occupies a former oil-change garage near a barre studio. Curaleaf Holdings, which contributed $300,000 to the Arizona amendment, is on a congested intersection not far from the police department. MedMen is transforming a vacant building steps from the city’s hippest nightspots, painting the once-drab facade the company’s signature red.
Despite conventional political wisdom that pot appeals largely to the young and liberal, Florida’s old and conservative are hip to the drug, too. The Villages, a central Florida retirement community and bastion of Trump support, has added more than 10,000 residents and three medical marijuana dispensaries since September 2015.
Most of The Villages sits in Sumter County, where 70 percent of voters backed Trump in 2016 — and 62 percent voted to legalize medicinal weed.
Support for medical pot was even higher in 18 other Florida counties. And in half of those, Republicans control at least 50 percent of the vote.
Fabrizio’s survey of 800 likely Florida voters, taken July 16-18, found a substantial majority in favor of legalizing adult pot use and concluded that anti-drug messages did only so much to sway opinion.
“Messages supporting an amendment legalizing marijuana for adult use resonate with the electorate much more than messages opposing it,” Fabrizio found. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percent.
Trump’s brother died of complications related to alcoholism, and the teetotaler in chief makes no secret of his aversion to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes — in September, he announced a ban on flavored vape pens. The White House has no plans to endorse marijuana legalization, according to two people close to Trump’s reelection campaign.
If Trump did endorse legalization, he could boost his appeal with younger, more liberal voters without agitating his solid base of seniors in communities like The Villages, said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said the president doesn’t need to support legalization to win Florida.
“It’s the other way around,” Gruters said. “If the amendment were to pass, you can say the president helped.”
Make It Legal Florida Chairman Nick Hansen said his campaign has no plans to ride Trump’s coattails to victory. The Fabrizio poll presented a wide spectrum of political affiliations and age groups his team will need for a win on Election Day, he said.
“It’s more complicated than just drilling down on one group or one number,” said Hansen, who also lobbies for Los Angeles-based MedMen, which markets itself as a high-end brand associated with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow. “It’s the broader picture here, and the support coming from across the board.”
Make It Legal has raised more than $2 million so far. MedMen and Surterra each gave $545,000 in August.
If successful, Hansen’s campaign could set a nationwide record for voter support of legalization. California legalized adult marijuana use with 57 percent of the vote in 2016, the current record, according to Josh Altic of the Ballotpedia Project, a nonprofit political encyclopedia.
Even with a diverse base of voter support or a powerful lawmaker backing a plan, there’s no guarantee of a successful outcome, said Karmen Hanson, a program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures who counts 15 states with legislative or voter efforts in play to legalize pot.
“You never know the political climate,” Hanson said.
A New Jersey bill was backed by Gov. Phil Murphy this year, but died when lawmakers failed to agree on a tax provision. In New York, legislators couldn’t agree on expunging nonviolent marijuana convictions. There’s talk of reconsidering legalization in both states, Hanson said.
“This isn’t the first time for a lot of them, and it wasn’t the first time for the ones that passed,” she said.
In Florida, the 2016 medical cannabis amendment had to overcome considerable opposition from the Drug Free Florida Committee, which included Republican casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who donated $1.5 million to kill the effort; real estate developer Mel Sembler, who gave $1 million; and Carol Jenkins Barnett, heir to the Publix Super Markets fortune, who gave $800,000.
Even with a flush war chest, Make It Legal still must negotiate the hurdle of collecting and verifying more than 766,000 voter signatures by Florida’s Feb. 1 deadline. Voters began to receive petitions in the mail Sept. 23 and have returned more than 100,000 signatures as of Oct. 3, according to Hansen, the group’s chairman.
“We will win,” Hansen said.