More than 400 people filed in to the Michael’s On East ballroom on Feb. 12, as one of Florida’s hottest political issues – a medical marijuana legalization amendment, to be voted on this November – was intensely debated among Sarasota and Florida political elites as they munched on salad and sipped coffee and iced tea.
Hosted by Suncoast Tiger Bay, the event’s main attraction was a head-tohead between John Morgan, the populist attorney known as the face of the medical marijuana push in Florida, and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, an outspoken opponent of the ballot initiative. State lawmakers, major attorneys, judges and New College representatives were all in attendance.
On Jan. 27 the Florida Supreme Court – by a vote of four to three – deemed the amendment in question legitimate to be voted on in the upcoming November elections. If 60 percent of Floridians vote yes, doctors and registered caregivers will be able to prescribe a regulated amount of marijuana for qualified patients.
Morgan and Knight were all smiles, confident and well prepared, as they took their seats on the stage. They were asked a series of questions, and each employed distinct strategies to mixed effect.
Morgan went on the offensive quickly, explaining that elected opponents like Knight “were more interested in the next election than their next-door neighbor.” The attorney had a way with words, blending snappy phrases with emotional appeals to the sick and helpless.
“I’ve seen [medical marijuana] work,” Morgan choked up. “My father had cancer … he had unbelievable pain and anxiety, but he used it and the pain went away.”
Morgan played up his Southern drawl and his practice’s focus – where he works to take down those responsible for the prescription of dangerous drugs like Adderall and Oxycodone – to appear as a man of the people and of faith. He cried out to great applause, “I don’t know why God put this drug on Earth, but it works … God told me it works.”
Knight relied greatly on his role in Sarasota County. “Let me be clear about something here today: I am not a doctor,” he emphasized. “I am coming at this from a Sheriff’s perspective.”
He worked the crowd with fear-based appeals of what could happen to the Sarasota community. “Our children are going to have much easier access to pot,” he warned. “Crime will increase, and our quality of life will decrease.”
He rattled off statistics, and showed the crowd a map of Anaheim, CA, where medical marijuana dispensaries had popped up all over the place. To the decidedly conservative and older crowd, a collective, mild gasp shook the room. “Marijuana will be all over the streets of Sarasota County,” he yelled.
Morgan refuted the claim, explaining, “We can only have as many dispensaries as the State of Florida allows,” and clarifying that “we don’t want to be California.” Yet this moment was more of an anomaly for Morgan, who typically responded to facts and figures with outright dismissal, followed by a return to emotional and faith-based claims.
Still, doing so kept him popular – that is, until the audience questions came in. The first, for Morgan, was not even really a question – a woman nastily criticized the amorality of his position and exited the podium before even hearing a response.
Things did not get too much better for Morgan. As the questions rattled on, at one point he nervously joked, “I feel like I’m the only Democrat in the room! I feel like Sidney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’”
By the luncheon’s end, it was hard to declare a victor. Both sides earned their fair share of applause, and despite some tough audience questions, Morgan’s affability and conviction kept him very popular with a crowd expected to lean more toward Knight.
Professor of Political Science Frank Alcock, a Tiger Bay board member, is a supporter of the amendment, but he was not especially happy with either’s performance.
“Knight kept talking about California and Colorado, California and Colorado,” Alcock explained. “There are like, 19 other states with medical marijuana laws – who was talking about that? It puzzled me a bit.”
He expressed disappointment that Morgan would not use such data to refute Knight’s clean statistics about problems in California, a state with very different laws from what Florida would have, and Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use as well.
“Knight guaranteed that crime would go up if this amendment passed,” Alcock reminded. “If we could get some crime data together from states like Alaska, it might hit the Sheriff, and everyone else making that argument, pretty hard. We didn’t see that today.”
Sarasota County Sheriff Spokeswoman Wendy Rose seemed pleased with Knight’s performance. “I think the Sheriff made all the points that he wanted to make,” she explained. “He is basing his statements on facts and research, and not on fear-mongering or tugging on heartstrings.”
Before the debate began, the crowd was asked if they had an opinion on the issue already. A majority raised their hands. Following its conclusion, they were asked if they had changed their minds. One, maybe two, hands went up.
For the first of many major political forums on the issue, arguments were established, tensions rose and new facts were unveiled. Yet for all of the event’s theatrics and applause, most went home with their mind unchanged.
And so, with months and months to go until Floridians can have their say, the battle can only wage on.