Florida Supreme Court snuffs out another effort to legalize marijuana

Richard Vogel/AP
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For the third time in three months, the Florida Supreme Court dashed the hopes of Floridians who want to see expanded access to cannabis.

In a 5-2 ruling on Thursday, the state’s highest court found a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana to be misleading. The initiative, titled “Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol to Establish Age, Licensing, and Other Restrictions,” also would have allowed Floridians to grow cannabis at home. Had it reached the ballot, the initiative would have needed the approval of 60% of voters to become a part of the state Constitution.

Attorney General Ashley Moody asked the court to weigh in on the ballot language in September 2019. It took the court the better part of two years to issue its ruling.

Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, Carlos Muñiz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans concurred Thursday that Sensible Florida’s ballot initiative misled voters because the 75-word summary of the proposed amendment was unclear on the word “use.”

The ballot summary said the amendment would regulate marijuana “for limited use and growing by persons twenty-one years of age or older.” Justices found that this could mean the initiative’s backers were claiming to set guardrails on the amount of cannabis an individual could personally consume. But the justices wrote that the language of the constitutional amendment set no such limits.

“The Sponsor’s inability to point to anything in the text of the measure that could credibly support the ‘limited use’ language in the summary leaves no doubt that the summary is affirmatively misleading,” the justices wrote.

In a statement, Moody spokesperson Lauren Cassidy thanked the court for its decision.

“Floridians must fully understand what they are voting on when they go to the ballot box,” Cassidy said.

A harmful legal delay

Tampa attorney Michael Minardi, who backed the initiative, said in an interview he was disappointed in the court’s decision. However, he plans to press on. His group will redraft the proposal in the hope of getting a version of the amendment before voters in 2022.

“We have already rewritten some alternate versions,” Minardi said. “It’s really a welcome thing just to finally have the opinion.”

Minardi has also entered the race to represent Florida House District 59, which covers part of Hillsborough County. The attorney, who would face Democrat Andrew Learned in a potential general election, said if elected, he would educate the Republican Party about the economic benefits of expanded cannabis access in Florida.

Nicholas Warren, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida, said the long wait between Moody’s request and the court’s ruling was highly unusual — and harmful to the initiative’s prospects.

“The Florida Supreme Court is killing initiatives by parking them in legal limbo,” Warren said.

Records show that even without the court’s decision, the marijuana legalization effort had a ways to go before hitting the 2022 ballot. Sensible Florida, the group chaired by Minardi, had collected just 29,172 of the necessary 891,589 valid signatures to be placed on the ballot. The group had raised about $271,000.

Successful ballot initiatives often cost millions of dollars. Sensible Florida may have trouble raising the money it needs. A law passed by the Legislature earlier this year limits individual campaign contributions to groups backing or opposing ballot initiatives to $3,000 — until the proposal is cleared for the ballot.

Minardi noted that the law is the subject of at least one legal challenge.

A string of cannabis setbacks

The court’s ruling Thursday is the latest in a string of defeats for advocates of expanded cannabis access. In April, the court defeated a different, industry-backed marijuana legalization initiative, ruling that it, too, was misleading. And in May, justices found Florida’s medical marijuana regulations to be constitutional — a blow to smaller businesses hoping to enter the heavily regulated industry.

Charlie Crist, the Democratic congressman who hopes to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2022 governor’s race, blasted the court’s decision on Twitter.

“The Florida Supreme Court that @GovRonDeSantis packed with partisan judges just denied another ballot initiative to let Floridians vote on legalizing marijuana. This is wrong. Legalization should be up to the people of Florida,” Crist tweeted.

When he was governor, Crist appointed Canady and Polston, who sided with the majority, to the Supreme Court. Crist also appointed Jorge Labarga, who dissented in this case.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce celebrated the court’s ruling.

“We applaud the Court for ... protecting voters from efforts to obscure the initiative’s true purpose, unlimited marijuana for all,” the chamber’s president and CEO, Mark Wilson, said in a statement.