ORLANDO, Fla. - Two citizens initiatives that would legalize recreational marijuana in Florida are still far away from gathering enough signatures to get on the 2020 ballot – and time is running out.

Regulate Florida has only about 92,000 signatures of the required 766,200 needed by Feb. 1 to qualify. The other group, Make It Legal Florida, has about 57,000 signatures.

By comparison, John Morgan's $15 minimum wage initiative hit the signature mark last week and is now on its way to state Supreme Court review.

The petitions also face a headwind of skeptical GOP legislators in Tallahassee, who have been holding hearings this month on the potential dangers of pot legalization, as well as potential court issues and a challenge by the Florida attorney general. But the biggest obstacles right now are money and time.

"We've got a lot of grass-roots support ... but we're not getting enough (funding) and we're not getting it consistently," said Karen Goldstein, deputy director of pro-pot group NORML Florida and vice chair of Regulate Florida. "We need someone with big, deep pockets to step up in a very short period of time in order for us to make the ballot.

The groups have different strategies, with one broadly legalizing pot and the other working through the existing distribution system for medical cannabis, which is already legal in Florida. And they also have vastly different methods of fundraising, with Regulate Florida getting mostly small donations and Make It Legal mostly financed by the marijuana industry.

"If I had to put money on which one makes the ballot, it would be the one with financial heft behind it, especially after they've already put money into it," said Matthew Isbell, who runs the MCI Maps website devoted to political mapmaking and analysis. "And at this point, if it doesn't make the ballot, every dollar they've spent is a waste."

The actual number of signatures needed goes beyond the bare minimum of 766,200, he said, with campaigns usually needing to get 50,000 to 100,000 additional signatures as a "buffer" against any challenges or duplicates.

But paid signature gathering, Isbell said, "can yield results fairly quickly. There's a big difference between a volunteer program versus a paid program."

Regulate Florida's proposed amendment would legalize marijuana for adults over age 21 and would also allow them to grow their own.

The group has been gathering petitions since 2016, raising about $447,000 over that time from mostly small $20 to $50 donations. The largest single contribution was $20,000 from Seminole County businessman Oliver Dawoud, CEO of Aventus Health.

It has gathered enough petitions to get its language looked at by the attorney general in advance of a review by the state Supreme Court.

A state study of the plan's financial impact found legal marijuana sales would at least $190 million per year in new sales taxes alone once the legal retail market is fully operational.

That's in line with a new report by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, which estimates that total medical marijuana sales, already at $626 million in 2018, will increase by $1.3 billion over the next five years, even without full legalization.

But Attorney General Ashley Moody has challenged Regulate Florida's amendment, saying the 10-page text is misleading because it is too long and cannot be adequately summarized.

Despite not reaching 100,000 signatures yet, Goldstein was optimistic that they would pull through and get the needed signatures by February.

"The deadline is looming, but we have some irons in the fire this week," Goldstein said. "We're hoping something's going to break for us."

The other group, Make It Legal Florida, only filed with the state in August.

It's backed by some of the state's leading medical marijuana dispensaries, with contributions of more than $654,000 from MedMen and more than $1 million from Surterra.

Their referendum would be similar to the amendment that approved medical marijuana, in that all sales would be handled through designated distribution centers such as those already run by MedMen and Surterra in Florida.

That petition hasn't garnered enough signatures to trigger an attorney general review or financial impact study.

Nick Hansen, chairman of Make it Legal Florida and a regional director for MedMen, said while they're only at 57,000 signatures now, he's optimistic the group's campaign will gather enough by the deadline.

He said the group has 35 offices up across the state, each making three deliveries of petitions a week to elections offices. They're also starting a direct mail campaign, which already includes the voter's name and address already filled out, and return postage prepaid.

Hansen said their amendment's language was written specifically to echo the successful medical marijuana initiative.

"We looked at two standards," Hansen said. "One, can it pass a court review? Standards are very high for that. They have to be short subjects and can't be conflated. We wanted to make sure we stayed in our lane. ... and didn't want to do anything that was a significant departure from what the (state) Supreme Court said was constitutional."

Secondly, he said, "What can get 60% plus of the vote? ... We need the support of people who may not ever use cannabis but who just want to make sure it's accessible and safe."

Despite everything, Hansen said he didn't see Regulate Florida as a competitive rival.

"We're one big community and movement," Hansen said. "We talk and have a good relationship, and we check in with each other periodically. I kind of feel we're all on the same team."

Goldstein said she didn't see Make It Legal Florida as a competitor, either, but for a different reason.

Florida law does not contain any language on what would happen if two competing amendments were to pass. But Goldstein interprets that to mean that if her petition passes, it would supersede the other one.

If either or both amendments face a state Supreme Court review, the makeup of the court has changed since it approved the medical marijuana amendment's language in 2016. Gov. Ron DeSantis in January replaced three liberal justices with three conservatives, tilting the court to a conservative majority.

The final obstacle is that amendments need 60% of the vote, not just a simple majority.

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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