Split loyalties could threaten recreational cannabis amendment

Cbd Concept, Medical Marijuana, cannabis and blue background
The lead signature-gathering firm has close ties to anti-pot U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

As the Midterm Elections approach, many are already looking ahead to 2024, when elections for President, U.S. Senate, and possibly recreational marijuana legalization will be on the ballot.

The last one is uncertain. There have been attempts to get a cannabis legalization question in front of Florida voters in the past, though the requirements to qualify for consideration are arduous.

Earlier this year, some of the world’s largest casino companies fell short of gathering the nearly 900,000 petition signatures needed for a spot on the November ballot despite spending tens of millions of dollars on advertising and ground game.

By comparison, efforts by Make It Legal Florida and Sensible Florida to put recreational pot on the 2022 ballot gathered far fewer signatures and drew less attention from moneyed interests. They also failed to clear legal hurdles, with the state Supreme Court rejecting their ballot language as misleading.

But a new initiative known as Smart & Safe Florida is aiming to succeed where others have failed. The committee has already secured crucial buy-in from deep-pocketed pro-cannabis companies such as Trulieve, a Florida-based medical marijuana outfit that ranks as the largest legal cannabis company in the United States.

As of early October, the committee has only submitted about 1,000 valid petition signatures, though it only recently started spending its $10 million in funding to hire consulting companies and petition-gathering organizations to ramp up the effort.

Vanguard Field Strategies (VFS) and Axiom Strategies, two companies tied to longtime Republican political consultant Jeff Roe, have received more than $6.5 million of the nearly $7 million Smart & Safe Florida has spent since it was established in August.

Though new to statewide ballot initiatives, Roe has experience running campaigns, most of it working for conservatives. His most prominent client — and one who predates VFS, which was founded in 2018 — is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Roe has served as a top adviser and consultant to Cruz for years, ascending to campaign manager of the GOP Senator’s 2016 presidential campaign. Cruz 2016 was seen as the “best organized” GOP Primary campaign. It managed to finish first in the Iowa Caucuses and was the last to fall to the eventual nominee, former President Donald Trump.

In the years since, Roe’s operations have continued to work for the Senator, with federal campaign finance reports showing VFS receiving checks from Cruz’ 2018 re-election campaign and Axiom Strategies currently being paid retainers by his 2024 campaign.

While there is no conflict of interest in a firm having one client trying to place a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot and another running for U.S. Senate in Texas, Cruz’ 2024 plans are not set in stone. Gov. Ron DeSantis may be the current No. 1 pick not named Trump among GOP voters, but if Trump were to indeed forgo a third run, Cruz would likely be one of the first Republicans to throw his hat in the ring.

If that were to happen, VFS and Axiom may face a choice: continue as the lead signature gathering firm for Smart & Safe Florida or hitch their wagons to Cruz 2024. Running the ground game for a statewide ballot initiative in Florida is lucrative, but not to the level of a nationwide presidential campaign.

Doing both would likely not be an option.

Cruz is among the most vocal anti-cannabis politicians who currently holds federal office. The hard-right conservative has parroted tropes about cannabis users being lazy or “slacker baristas” — in September he accused the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan of being a ploy for cannabis users to “get off the bong for a minute” and vote for Democrats in the Midterm Election.

As one of “The 5 Worst U.S. Senators On Marijuana Policy,” he is also on record against cannabis efforts closer to the core of Smart & Safe Florida’s goal. He has explicitly spoken out against state-level legalization efforts and, asked directly in 2015 about such an effort in Texas, he told media ”when it comes to a question of legalizing marijuana, I don’t support legalizing marijuana. If it were on the ballot in the state of Texas, I would vote no.”

Therein lies the conflict. Since Cruz could essentially serve as VFS’ and Axiom’s meal ticket, the organizations would likely need to give up work on efforts that could cause the potential presidential candidate to be accused of a duplicitous stance on one of his strongly stated positions.

VFS and Axiom would likely wait for a clearer picture of the 2024 presidential race before making a decision. Currently, they do not need to pick a side because there is no side to pick and chances are there won’t be until the latter half of next year.

But for would-be ballot amendments, late-2023 is nearly as important as Election Day since it is the eve of their deadline to gather enough signatures to qualify. Had the 2022 casino amendments had a few weeks more to connect with voters, they would almost certainly be in front of voters on Nov. 8 — the proposal championed by Florida Voters In Charge, a group backed by Las Vegas Sands, had managed to get 814,266 petition signatures when the state called pencils down. That is just 77,000 petitions short of the threshold.

If key cogs in Smart & Safe Florida’s effort suddenly pack their bags and pull out of the operation, it would leave the committee in the lurch and lead it to either pay a hefty premium to bring in a closer or, equally likely, force pro-cannabis Floridians to wait another two years for a shot at victory.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


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