Ben Pollara – Florida Politics

Ben Pollara

Ben Pollara is a political consultant and a founding partner of LSN Partners, a Miami Beach-based government and public affairs firm. He runs United for Care, the Florida medical marijuana campaign and is a self-described “hyper-partisan” Democrat.

Ben Pollara: Medical marijuana implementation for the 29, 48 … or 71 percent?

Ben Pollara

Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues claims to have polled Floridians on whether they want marijuana legalized.

They do not.

Undisclosed interests hired a political consultant, who then hired Donald Trump‘s pollster to ask the same question.

They got the same answer: 48 percent oppose legalization, while 46 percent support it.

I have two questions that don’t necessitate public opinion research to answer:

– Who cares?

– Why are we even talking about this?

Medical marijuana has now twice been before Florida voters. In 2014, it garnered a substantial majority of 58 percent, albeit not enough to pass.

Two years later, 71 percent of Floridians voted “yes,” placing Article X, Section 29, “Use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions,” in our state’s constitution.

In both campaigns, opponents argued that medical marijuana was merely a ruse – “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” was a favorite metaphor – for recreational marijuana.

That cynical argument – that voters tricked into something they didn’t want – ultimately lost, and badly. Voters were smarter than opponents gave them credit for, and In November overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana.

So why is the Majority Leader still parroting the talking points of Mel and Betty Sembler? Why is his implementing legislation seemingly written for the less than 29 percent who voted “no,” rather than the super-majority who put this law into our Constitution?

Florida for Care, which I lead, has been for almost three years educating and advocating Floridians your Wednesday thread for reasonable, responsible medical marijuana legislation in Tallahassee. That is and has always been our only scope.

As such, it is extraordinarily frustrating, and more than a little insulting, to even be engaging in these conversations about legalization. But I’m just an advocate. It is exponentially more hair-pullingly vexing for sick and suffering patients, who have been waiting desperately for medical marijuana, to see their concerns cast aside for a debate that is neither here nor there.

Legislators talk from both sides of their mouth when they claim in one breath not to be able to adjudicate voters’ intent when implementing medical marijuana, and in the next cite polling data on legalization to interpret that same purpose.

Here’s what I believe the voters’ intent was in passing Amendment 2: they wanted to legalize medical marijuana in Florida like had been done in two dozen states prior, and unlike the existing, overly restrictive, low-THC cannabis statute that had been on the books for nearly two years before the election.

It doesn’t take a psychic or a statewide poll to determine that the 71 percent vote was a vote for a broader medical marijuana law, or that it was a message that the existing laws were simply not good enough.

All the Senate proposals have built upon existing law (except for Jeff Brandes‘ “repeal and replace” bill, which starts anew), in an attempt to fulfill that voter mandate and respect the Constitution. Rodrigues’ House bill restricts medical marijuana even further than the existing statute.

It is both a truism and cliche in politics that, “the only poll that matters is Election Day.”

We had an election on medical marijuana. Two, actually.

The “only poll that matters” came down firmly for medical marijuana.

Almost every week since December, I’ve left my wife and two young children in Miami so I could be in Tallahassee, advocating for the implementation of this law.

I only wish the House actually wanted to talk about it, instead of debating an issue that has neither a popular, nor constitutional, imperative.


Ben Pollara is the executive director of Florida for Care. He managed the 2014 and 2016 campaigns for Amendment 2 and was one of the primary authors of both amendments.

Ben Pollara: Stephen Bittel only choice to lead Florida Dems out of desolation, irrelevancy

I won’t be in Orlando this weekend to vote for the next chair of the Florida Democratic Party. I’m not a state committeeman, so I don’t even have a vote.

But I certainly have an opinion on who should lead the political party that I’ve been a member of, and heavily involved with, since I first registered to vote at 18.

Stephen Bittel is unequivocally the best candidate for the job and the only candidate capable of effecting the sort of change in the FDP that is so desperately needed.

Except for Leah Carius, I’ve known all the candidates for chair for some time. I’ve known Alan Clendenin for nearly two decades, having grown up in Tampa, and being friends with his two kids since high school.

I got to know Lisa King almost a decade ago when I worked for Hillary‘s first presidential campaign, and Lisa was part of a small group of committed supporters in a city whose Democratic power structure was mostly backing then-Senator Barack Obama.

And I have gotten to know Dwight Bullard over the years, as a champion for progressive values representing Miami, where I live, and as the chair of our local DEC. Finally, Stephen Bittel is my landlord, renting office space in his “Fortress of Democracy” to United for Care, and to the consulting firm that I helped found, LSN Partners.

I don’t have a negative thing to say about any of the candidates. These people are my friends, and they are good people. (I’m sure the same can be said of Ms. Carius, I just don’t know her.)

But being a good person, and a good Democrat, with good intentions and good plans, simply isn’t enough to make someone the right person for this job.

We capital “D” Democrats need to take a hard look in the mirror. We are borderline irrelevant in Tallahassee. The big, important fights in our state Capitol aren’t even partisan because we’re so firmly in the minority. The food fights over the direction of our government occur between House and Senate, legislative and executive branches, Conservatives and Libertarians.

We’re not even in the scrum.

Redistricting has brought some new Democratic members of Congress to the delegation, but its balance is nonetheless titled lopsidedly toward Republicans. Bill Nelson is all we’ve got to look toward as a true leader of the party and as proof that, YES!, we can actually win races statewide.

So, my fellow Democrats, look hard into the mirror. It’s ugly, Dorian Gray-type stuff. The decadence and decay of a once great political party should be nakedly obvious with even a passing glance.

Don’t look away. Don’t deny our entrenchment as a marginalized political force.

This is who and where we are as a party, unless we act to change our fate.

In the dogma of addiction and recovery, the most basic article of faith is that the journey to rehabilitation must begin with an acceptance that you have a problem.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Florida Democratic Party: We. Have. A. Problem.

Just as denying that essential truth is willfully ignorant, so too is believing that one man or woman can single-handedly solve the endemic issues plaguing the FDP as an organization and a party.

The road to recovery is long. The path itself isn’t yet clear. Further setbacks lay ahead.

But the road map to reinvention and reinvigoration begins with Stephen Bittel. We deny it (and him) at our own existential peril.

Stephen brings two qualities to the job that no FDP chair in my political lifetime has possessed to any substantial degree: executive, managerial expertise and nationwide fundraising prowess.

Bittel alone has the ability to make the sort of hard choices, to recruit the kind of experienced operatives, and to raise the money we need to reinvent the party organizationally, from the ground up.

His stated goals should be sweet music to the ears of any Florida Democrat: staff the party with the most talented people to be found; support the grassroots by funding local DECs; recruit candidates for office starting at dogcatcher and moving upward; and beat the bushes and twist arms to actually fund these grand plans.

I know Democrats want all these things because each of the candidates for chair has a pretty similar platform. But Bittel talks about his plans the most because, I believe, he doesn’t just have a plan, but a proven ability to put that plan into action; and because the other candidates have frankly spent more time trying to poison the grassroots against Bittel, rather than talk about what they would do, and how they’d do it.

Bittel is many things. He’s a rich guy, to be sure. He’s part of the “elite,” chattering class, political establishment. He’s got strong opinions, and he’s got an ego befitting the status he’s earned in business and in life.

Bittel is also a committed, lifelong Democrat. He’s a man of extraordinary compassion, who cares deeply about what is just and right. He’s hugely generous to the people, candidates, causes and charities that he believes in. He’s someone who knows how to hire and manage smart people, and how to run a large organization.

Stephen Bittel is not the best choice to lead the Florida Democratic Party out of the desolation and marginalization that plagues us. Stephen Bittel is the only choice.

Ben Pollara: Expansion of medical marijuana business is necessary and prudent

At last week’s Senate Health Policy Committee workshop on medical marijuana, much of the conversation centered on the question of whether the passage of Amendment 2 necessitated an expansion of the number of licenses to cultivate and sell medical marijuana in Florida.

I participated in the workshop at the invitation of Chair Dana Young, and addressed this issue in my opening remarks, arguing that voters approved medical marijuana by a historic, 71 percent margin with the knowledge and expectation that passage of the amendment would mean just such an expansion of the marketplace.

Adjudication of voter intent is tricky business, but consider the context in which this amendment was approved.

Florida passed a limited medical marijuana law in 2014, and expanded it slightly in 2016. That law authorized five marijuana growers across the state (a court later granted a sixth).

Voters were not only aware of the existence of this limited market, but were repeatedly told by the opposition campaign — in 30-second TV ads, direct mail, online ads, emails, OpEd pieces, and news conferences — that a vote for Amendment 2 would mean, “a pot shop on every corner,” or, “more pot shops than Walgreens and CVS’s combined,” among other similarly dire predictions by the opposition.

Voters approved Amendment 2 with the clear expectation that it would result in an expansion of the medical marijuana industry in Florida. But even putting aside the notion of voter intent, the legislature should significantly expand the medical marijuana business in Florida for a variety of reasons practical and philosophical.

The primary reason to do so is at the core of the amendment just approved: to serve the estimated half million or more patients in the state through a competitive free market. The expansion also serves to exert regulatory oversight on the industry and obviate diversion to the black market, and because good public policy and government procurement practices dictate transparency and fairness.

During the workshop, the CEO of Trulieve (one of the five companies licensed under current statute) said they could presently serve over 70,000 medical marijuana patients and, with planned expansion of their operations, nearly 10 times that number. This assertion went unchallenged despite there being only roughly 1,000 total patients under the current law. Are we to believe that the company is currently sitting on 70 times more inventory than the entire consumer base statewide?

Also unchallenged was the consumer data Trulieve cited to offer those numbers.

They based their assertions on a daily dosage per patient of 20 milligrams of cannabis oil and extrapolated from there. This makes Trulieve’s claims more difficult to verify, since marijuana is a plant, not an oil, and we don’t know how much of that plant must be grown to achieve the numbers claimed. Colorado’s Department of Revenue, for example, measures consumption based on the weight of dried plant matter; others on a mean number of plants, harvested and growing, per patient.

So, while we can’t easily determine the veracity of Trulieve’s capacity claims, we are also not living in a vacuum.

We know Florida is large and diverse and that on its face, having six companies serve any sort of statewide market is bad for consumers from a perspective of access, quality, choice, and cost. The only industry that operates in such an oligopolistic manner is power companies, which as utilities must do so, and thus are subject to oversight by the PSC on rate increases, and all aspects of their operations.

If these six businesses can operate in the absence of competition, who ensures patients aren’t being gouged? Will the legislature authorize the Office of Compassionate Use to set prices, establish production quotas and quality controls? Does anyone want or believe that medical marijuana should be administered in Florida in a such a way?

There are no right answers to these questions.

And though the logic behind such a small number of growers may have been an abundance of caution in introducing a legal marijuana market to our state, we must consider the unintended potentiality that the result will be a significant expansion of the already large black market for marijuana. This may seem initially counterintuitive, until you consider the following:

First, the sheer size of these operations (particularly one of the capacity described by Trulieve) makes a diversion of marijuana to the black market easier and more likely.

A pound of marijuana finding its way into the hands of drug dealers is far simpler and less risky if an operation is harvesting hundreds, or thousands, of pounds at a time, versus one harvesting tens of pounds.

The smaller the haystack, the more likely you are to find the needle gone astray.

Second, let us assume that the above scenario doesn’t come to pass, and every ounce of marijuana grown by these six companies is accounted for from seed to sale. Patients are guaranteed to face the burdens of an uncompetitive market: high prices, a dearth of choices, and for some, lack of physical access to retail. If one or all those results come to pass, consumers will flock to the black market.

The economic imperatives of supply and demand clearly dictate this unwanted consequence.

Other states have experienced this predictable phenomenon, with black markets surging as nascent markets grow to accommodate new consumer demands; and then shrink as markets expand and legal products’ pricing falls in closer line with a black market not subject to regulatory compliance and oversight.

Colorado’s legalization of marijuana for medical and adult use, for example, has been shown to have dramatically decreased the seizure of marijuana imported by El Chapo‘s Sinaloa cartel, as well as other Mexican cartel trafficking.

Finally, there is a philosophical argument to be made for the administration of good public policy and fair procurement practices.

While technically a “licensing” by the state, these six companies were granted authorization to grow and sell marijuana through a competitive process that, for all intents and purposes, was conducted like a government procurement.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran regularly inveighs against the government participating in the business of “picking winners and losers,” but that would be the precise result of the maintenance of the current system.

The five licenses awarded (and the sixth won through litigation, with a seventh and possibly more seemingly likely by courts) were done so by an application and selection process designed to choose well-qualified, capitalized and experienced applicants to serve a law, and a market, of an entirely different, and much smaller, size and scope than that anticipated under Amendment 2.

An apt analogy is if a company bid on and won a contract to supply a county government with widgets, and then the State of Florida decided to “piggyback” that county contract to allow the company to sell them much larger state government those same widgets.

Government contracts should be awarded transparently and based on the needs of the procuring agency, not merely expedience and fealty to a previous process that bears little resemblance to the present realities of the agency.

I am glad this discussion has begun already in Young’s Health Policy Committee, and I look forward to making these points to the legislature, the Department of Health, and the people of Florida.

The implementation of a medical marijuana law is a balancing act — and a delicate one.

Serving the intended beneficiaries of the law — sick and suffering patients — is paramount, but must also be weighed against the establishment of an industry and market with which to serve them. There must be a robust system of laws and regulations that take both into account, as well as considerations of public safety, local control, and competitive, free market principles.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of decision points that must be determined in crafting the medical marijuana system authorized under Amendment 2. Most of them are not binary, but the decision to leave as is, or to expand the marketplace.

If six companies, authorized under a three-year-old statute, are to be the sole suppliers of the statewide market for medical marijuana in Florida, we will all suffer the consequences.

Supply will not be able to meet demand, patients will face a choice of high prices versus buying untested, unregulated product from street dealers, and our government will have violated some of the most basic tenets of transparent procurement in the sunshine — and the will of the people will have been thwarted in the process.


Ben Pollara is the executive director of Florida for Care. He managed the 2014 and 2016 campaigns for Amendment 2 and was one of the primary authors of both amendments.

Pollara honestly has no earthly idea whether John Morgan will run for governor, so please stop asking.

Ben Pollara: An insider’s view of Day 3 of the DNC

The smartest member of Florida’s delegation on Day 3 of #DemsInPhilly was Alex Sink, by a mile.

She strolled into the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday wearing an elegant white dress and a pair of blue running sneakers. Well done. Her footwear choice left my leather loafers an even more painful choice than they already were.

My former co-finance director for Alex’s gubernatorial campaign, and current executive director of Ruth’s List, Marley Wilkes, could be spotted all over Philly trying to recruit Democratic women to run for office. At one point she tried to convince Alex Heckler his wife, Tiffany, should run for the state Legislature. Alex demurred from the recruitment push, acknowledging Tiffany would be an excellent public servant, but that her election might present ethical challenges for our government relations firm.

I made a discovery today, waiting at the valet circle of the Marriott for Erin to drop off credentials. This is a big revelation, exclusive to Ron Book could be seen dressed casually, in jeans and a T-shirt, NOT the perfectly tailored suit and paisley tie I was always sure he woke up and went to sleep in.

Casual Ronnie’s progeny, Senator-elect Lauren Book has a big morning on Day 4, addressing the Florida delegation breakfast alongside former Attorney General of the U.S., Eric Holder and Congressman Joe Kennedy III. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting Lauren will be significantly better received by her fellow Floridians than another female Jewish elected official from Broward County was earlier this week.

I’m not sure whether it was the cachet of having my photo on page 7A of Wednesday’s USA Today, or the Midas touch of Chris “CK1” Korge* but I finally got into the infamous Suite 1415 Wednesday night (i.e., “The Hillary Suite”). And, in this case, the grass was indeed greener on the other side. In addition to an open bar and a generous buffet that included both hot dogs and Hostess Tasty Cakes, this was a room that contained Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; his father-in-law, Central Florida political legend Richard Swann; Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont; a very hip, fashionable young dude sporting a leather purse in the shape of a small dog (no joke); and — wait for it — MC Hammer!!!! In terms of convention celebrity sightings, folks, you just can’t touch that.

And lastly, for this second-to-last dispatch from PHL, I shed a single, emotion-filled tear when VP Biden took the stage before Tim Kaine, knowing that my hopes of #8MoreYears of Uncle Joe riding shotgun in the Oval were dashed for good.

I don’t know if he’s here or not, but I know, wherever he is, Steve Schale was weeping with me.

*It was 100 percent Korge.

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