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Medical marijuana issue firing up in Highlands County


Published:   |   Updated: January 8, 2014 at 12:08 PM

SEBRING - Elizabeth didn't hesitate to sign - she thought it was just the right thing to do.

So on Oct. 31, Elizabeth, a retired Sebring middle school teacher, signed when asked put her John Hancock to a petition for a constitutional amendment allowing the use of medical marijuana in Florida.

With a tight deadline of Feb. 1 looming for a spot on the 2014 ballot, medical marijuana proponents around Florida and Highlands County are working hard to make sure that happens.

As of Tuesday, Giselle Acevedo, Highlands County deputy supervisor of elections, said 513 of 678 signed petitions have been validated, signed by legitimately registered voters, with no duplicates, Of those, 165 have been rejected.

In October, 100 petitions were sent in by People United for Medical Marijuana, a non-profit activist group endorsing the Florida effort of medical marijuana legalization.

According to the Florida Division of Elections website Tuesday, 683,149 signatures are required to have the initiative on the ballot, 265,468 are valid, leaving 68,314 required for review by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Bondi has objected to the amendment language, but a state Supreme Court decision on that issue may not come before April.

If enough valid petitions are signed, Floridians like Elizabeth, who declined to give her last name, would be able to vote on the measure in the Nov. 4 election.

"I think it's like any other medicine or drug and my daughter is a nurse and she agrees," said Elizabeth of Avon Park. "People should have access to anything available that would help so I signed."

The initiative is being led by the Orlando-based People United. Benjamin Pollara, People United campaign manager, said signature numbers may be lower in Highlands County because paid petitioners, who get paid per signed name, can make more money in areas with high populations. He hopes to get more signers in rural areas since pay has increased from $1 to $4 per name. Personal injury attorney John Morgan of the Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan law firm is the leading financial backer of the amendment drive.

There are currently between 400 and 500 people working the streets for signers for People United and Pollara said the campaign hopes to finish with a million signatures by deadline to ensure enough are collected.

"As we become more focused on education about the initiative, then you'll see our staff start to expand operations into smaller counties in the state like Highlands, So in the grand scheme of things, Highlands County can play a big role," he said.

By state law, county elections supervisors have up to 30 days after amendment supporters turn in signatures to check their validity and submit them to the state.

With minimal petitions to review in Highlands County, Acevedo has been receiving and validating signatures on her own from her office, but in counties with larger populations, elections offices have been adding part-time workers to check names.

According to a report by the Tampa Tribune Jan. 4, in Pasco County, the supervisor's office added three part-time workers to validate signatures, said Chief Deputy Supervisor Melba Hamilton. The staff had a backlog of about 25,000 petitions and is processing about 2,400 per day. In Hillsborough, Supervisor Craig Latimer said in early January, his office processed about 34,000 of the 69,000 petitions submitted, at a rate of about 4,000 a day. At the Pinellas office, 34,367 of the 72,728 submitted by Jan. 3 were processed.

Highlands Country Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg said Tuesday the medical marijuana issue is a hot topic anywhere but doesn't have an "inside track" on how local voters are going to respond. She said it's a bipartisan drive and the county just tracks numbers.

"This isn't attributed to any party. When they get into the voting booth, you don't know how they feel about the medical marijuana issue or how they vote," she said.

Pollara said the campaign has spent about $3 million, the majority donated by Morgan, with about 85 percent spent so far on petition gathering.

For information on signing the petition, call 850-845-0561 or go to www.unitedforcare.org

pcatala@highlandstoday.com

(863) 386-5855

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