Marijuana produces strange bedfellows in John Morgan, Ron DeSantis

It was striking to see the mega-rich personal injury lawyer standing beside the conservative new governor Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, John Morgan, left, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, right, during a press conference to pressure state legislators and give them a mid March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park on Thursday. (Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr.)
Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, John Morgan, left, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, right, during a press conference to pressure state legislators and give them a mid March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park on Thursday. (Photo by Willie J. Allen Jr.)
Published January 18
Updated January 18

John Morgan, the colorful, mega-rich personal injury lawyer who bankrolled Florida’s legalization of medical marijuana, tweeted out a video three weeks before Election Day declaring his enthusiastic support for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum.

“Electing this guy is so critical to everything marijuana in Florida,” said Morgan, condemning Republican Ron DeSantis as an anti-marijuana “carbon copy of Rick Scott” except shorter and with a full head of hair.

With this context, it was striking to see Morgan standing beside the conservative new governor Thursday as DeSantis declared an end to efforts by Republican state leaders to restrict easy access to medical marijuana, something more than 7 in 10 Florida voters had approved.

What happened? Generation X.

Younger people generally have a more accepting, libertarian view of marijuana use than their parents and grandparents and it is shifting the politics of marijuana as much as public support for gay rights grew dramatically over the past decade.

At 40, DeSantis is 26 years younger than his Republican predecessor. The Republicans joining him in embracing the medical marijuana agenda of Morgan were Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, 46, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, 36, one of DeSantis’ closest advisers.

The oldest member of Florida’s Cabinet is 46-year-old Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

“It’s really a generational shift. There’s a new era,” said Morgan, 62, who is one of America’s top money-raisers for Democratic candidates.

There had been ample circumstantial evidence to expect DeSantis to continue Scott’s efforts to restrict marijuana access.

During the campaign, DeSantis said nothing about loosening restrictions on medical marijuana or ending the state’s legal fight against patients smoking it. He received $500,000 in campaign donations from ardent marijuana legalization opponent Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, and, unlike Gillum, DeSantis opposed legalizing recreational use of cannabis.

Behind the scenes during and after the election, however, DeSantis peppered aides and advisers with questions about state policies on medical marijuana and implementation of the 2016 amendment.

“He never stopped asking why this is something people were fighting about, and he never got a good answer,” said Gaetz, long a supporter of legalized medical marijuana.

DeSantis suggested that fighting over whether patients in Florida should be allowed to light up marijuana or only vape it or eat it simply made little sense to him and appeared to contradict what voters approved.

“I look at someone who has Lou Gehrig’s disease or terminal cancer or multiple sclerosis. I think the Florida voters who voted for that wanted those people to have access to medical marijuana under the supervision of a physician,” DeSantis said, standing amid big cypress trees and saw palmetto at Winter Park’s Kraft Azalea Park.

“Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?”

During DeSantis’ post-election transition period, Gaetz served as an emissary to Morgan, Florida’s self-described “pot daddy,” keeping him abreast of the governor-elect’s thinking.

Most of the traditional Republican hostility to easing marijuana laws stems from rich, elderly campaign donors, Morgan said, and obstacles to legalized marijuana are falling faster and faster. He predicted Florida voters will legalize recreational marijuana in 2020.

“It’s a lonely road out there trying to fight it,” acknowledged St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, one of the country’s top GOP fundraisers and with his wife, Betty, among the most prominent crusaders against marijuana use.

“We’re going to damage more kids,” Sembler, 88, said of DeSantis’ announcement.

“The marijuana industry does a fabulous job selling their product. It’s hard to fight it, because there’s a financial incentive to legalizing marijuana, but there is no financial incentive against it,” he said.

Morgan said he has invested million of dollars in marijuana-related businesses, including banks catering to the industry, licensees, and Weedapps, a smart phone directory of cannibis doctors and retailers. He also is raising $200 million for a hedge fund concentrating on the marijuana industry.

The governor’s decision to make the announcement in Morgan’s backyard of Winter Park, worried some DeSantis aides, given the “For the People” lawyer’s penchant for outrageous, and sometimes profane, off-the-cuff comments. Morgan promised to behave and did.

“He was docile as a kitten,” Gaetz noted.

Advertisement