One of the hottest political campaigns of 2014 will kick into high gear this weekend as proponents of legalizing medical marijuana mobilize for a day of political organizing.
From locations in Fort Lauderdale, West Delray and 11 other communities, they'll be conducting phone banks, hoping to start converting casual supporters into committed voters.
"We're trying to get our volunteers mobilized and get the word out to as many people as we possibly can," said John Makris, a Boca Raton CPA who is a volunteer organizer for United for Care: People United for Medical Marijuana.
He's heartened by what he's seen so far. "I've been out campaigning and speaking to different groups and I rarely come across anybody that's opposed to it."
Even though Election Day is more than six months away, Ben Pollara, a veteran of Florida political campaigns and manger for the pro-marijuana referendum group, said there are good reasons to start encouraging yes votes now.
--President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns showed that identifying supporters early, keeping in touch with them and encouraging early or absentee votes is a winning strategy. Volunteers on Saturday will start contacting the 800,000 people who signed petitions to get the referendum on the ballot, guided by a computer program that helps them gauge support and encourage people to request absentee ballots.
--After Labor Day, it may be impossible for any candidate or issue to compete for attention amid the onslaught of television time that will be bought by the candidates for governor.
Pollara's group, which received the bulk of its money from Democratic governor candidate Charlie Crist's law partner, conducted the petition drive that got the issue on the ballot. He said the organization has 15 staffers and consultants on the payroll.
The opposition isn't as well organized.
"[Supporters] do have a lot of money and they do have a lot of mobilizing, and quite frankly I think that's putting us at a bit of a disadvantage," Margaret Sotham, South Florida grassroots director for the group Save Our Society from Drugs. "Are we going to match dollar for dollar and foot soldier for foot soldier with the other side? I can't answer that."
Opponents are beginning to organize through anti-drug organizations, some churches, and the Florida Sheriffs Association. Sotham said a key audience for the opposition is parents, who will get warnings about dangers of kids smoking marijuana, and social media will be a key tool.
Jeff Kadel, of Delray Beach, executive director of the Palm Beach County Substance Awareness Coalition, said a political action committee is being formed to oppose the referendum. "The more we can educate people about what this amendment would mean in real life the more support we're going to garner," he said.
Even though polls show 70-plus percent support for the medical marijuana referendum, Sotham said "We're not giving up" -- and proponents aren't declaring victory.
The referendum requires 60 percent of the vote to pass. To block it, "we only have to get it down to 59.9," said Scott Spages, a Davie Republican who's active in conservative Christian causes and helped run campaigns for candidates and referendums.
Each side is pitching a radically different message.
To Makris, it's all about the medicinal benefits. "There are people that really need it," he said. "There are so many prescription drugs and so forth that people sue that really are so dangerous and cause so many side effects that if they can do something that's less harmful and less addictive than that's a good option."
To Kadel, it's all about the dangers of marijuana. "Basically what this amendment is doing is legalizing pot. Really it's a facade to say it's medical marijuana. That's not the end game of this movement," he said. "Marijuana use is harmful, addictive and is a gateway drug."
If you go
Saturday events supporting medical marijuana referendum:
West Delray: 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., 15067 Jog Road
Fort Lauderdale: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., 3045 N. Federal Highway, Suite 98 ___