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Florida campaign for medical marijuana gets financial backers

Medical marijuana is displayed in Los Angeles in this August 6, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files
Medical marijuana is displayed in Los Angeles in this August 6, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Two top Democratic fundraisers in Florida have committed to providing the money and know-how to get the question of legalizing medical marijuana on the state ballot in 2014.

"I'm prepared to keep raising money and writing checks until I get the signatures to put it on the ballot," attorney John Morgan said late on Tuesday.

Morgan, who routinely hosts presidents and national political figures at his Orlando-area home, recently signed on as chairman of People United for Medical Marijuana-Florida, a grassroots campaign that operated on a shoestring until now.

Morgan was recruited by Ben Pollara, a lobbyist and fundraiser for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. Pollara recently became treasurer of the medical marijuana campaign.

The group lacked the money to wage a high-profile campaign and couldn't collect enough signatures to get the medical marijuana legalization proposal on the ballot in November.

"We were just scraping together pennies," said Kim Russell, the Orlando woman who founded People United four years ago.

The group could barely afford to photocopy the petition, she said. Now, it has commissioned a poll and plans to hire a company to manage the petition drive.

"It's a 180-degree turnaround," Russell said.

By law, the campaign needs to collect signatures of almost 700,000 registered voters to get a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana on the ballot in November 2014.

Pollara estimated the campaign will cost $10 million.

He said he jumped on board after the 2012 elections when Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington passed laws legalizing marijuana for either medical or recreational use.

A poll he commissioned for People United found support in Florida for medical marijuana at 70 percent. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats support passage, and the only group opposed consisted of people who identified themselves as very conservative, he said.

"Looking at the poll, the support is really broad and I think there is room to grow our support. I don't think there is going to be well-funded organized opposition to this. I think we've got a pretty decent chance if we get on the ballot," Pollara said.

Morgan's interest in medical marijuana dates back more than a decade to when his father was dying from esophageal cancer and emphysema. One of his brothers would bring him marijuana.

"He would smoke it or eat it and his nerves were steadied, his pain went away, his nausea went away, he had an appetite. It wasn't a wonderful way to die tethered to a machine but at least he was not being tortured," Morgan said.

Russell, a former real estate broker, said she began the campaign after her father, now 68, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He turned down marijuana even though she believed it could have reduced his tremors and increased his mobility, as well as slowed the progression of the disease.

"He refused to break the law," Russell said.

Morgan, who put his money behind a successful 2004 constitutional amendment raising Florida's minimum wage, said he thinks he can recruit an "army of angels" to help gather the necessary signatures for the ballot initiative.

"I believe there is going to be kind of an uprising of people who have needed it in the past or had a loved one who needed it who are going to say I don't want this to happen to someone else," Morgan said.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Doina Chiacu)

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