MIAMI (Reuters) - A November ballot measure to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in Florida could have a decidedly political side effect.
The ballot proposal, which was approved by Florida's Supreme Court on Monday, is so popular it could help Democrats unseat the state's Republican Governor, Rick Scott, who is up for re-election in November.
Democrats believe it could energize their base in a midterm electoral season that generally results in low turn out, while polls show even a majority of Florida Republicans support medical marijuana use.
Scott opposes the ballot initiative and is trailing in polls to his main challenger, former governor Charlie Crist, who favors legalization. That could set the stage for a political battle in a state that is both a harsh enforcer of drug laws and a major pot producer.
Florida's contest is the only gubernatorial election in a big swing state in November's midterm elections, and a Democratic victory would be a major blow to the Republican party heading into the 2016 presidential race.
Scott tried to block the ballot, arguing the wording was too vague and could allow almost anyone to get their hands on the drug, but the state Supreme Court approved it, nonetheless.
As many as 70 percent of registered Republicans in Florida favored medical marijuana in a November Quinnipiac University poll. Support was even higher among Democrats at 87 percent, and independents at 88 percent.
Republican political consultant Rick Wilson said the party should "get out in front" of a rapidly evolving change in public attitudes toward the drug.
"Americans have sort of made up their minds about a certain amount of marijuana in society," said Tallahassee-based Wilson, citing recent votes in Colorado and Washington state.
Florida's pro-marijuana push has been gaining ground as stories emerge of what it can do for the sick.
Some Republican state legislators back the legalization of a medicinal strain of marijuana, known as Charlotte's Web, that is believed to reduce seizures in children with an extreme form of epilepsy.
Katherine Hsiao's seven-year-old son, Kael, suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes dozens of seizures daily, and must currently take a cocktail of drugs with harmful side-effects.
Hsiao and her husband, who are Republicans, are considering moving to Colorado where Charlotte's Web is legal, and might also switch their vote if the law is not changed.
"If they refuse, it is because of a willful disregard for the weakest of their constituents. And I would not want someone like that in public office," said Hsiao.
Opponents argue that medical marijuana will not be dispensed in a controlled setting.
"The groups ... who have pushed for marijuana to be legalized have painted the perception that marijuana is a harmless drug by saying it's safer than alcohol," said Calvina Fay, director of the Drug Free America Foundation.
Colorado, which this month became the first state with legalized recreational marijuana, is one of 20 states across the country that allow medical marijuana. New York, Washington D.C., Alaska and Alabama, are also grappling with the issue.
Turnout among millennials goes down in midterm elections, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. But medical marijuana is seen by some political strategists as a "very mobilizing issue to bring out young voters," she added.
Florida has not elected a Democrat as governor since 1994, while Republicans have also cemented their control over both legislative houses.
Scott could choose to leave it to voters as a matter of personal choice, rather than risk going up against marijuana ads featuring war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or cancer patients and parents of epilepsy sufferers.
Crist may also keep it at arms length, preferring not to be branded as the "pro-pot" candidate.
The Florida Sheriffs Association voted almost unanimously this month to oppose medical marijuana, saying it would lead to more crime and traffic accidents.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who heads the association, described the initiative as a "fraudulent" effort to fully legalize marijuana.
In 2012, law enforcement uncovered 540 marijuana grow houses in Florida, more than any other state in the country. While medical marijuana legalization will not stop the state's black market, some law enforcement experts argue it could help reduce the violent crime associated with illegal drugs and reduce the prison population
In 2010, Florida ranked third in the nation for marijuana arrests, with 57,951, behind New York and Texas, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The number accounted for more than 40 percent of the state's total arrests that year at a cost of $125.6 million.
Prominent Orlando attorney John Morgan, the former employer and a longtime backer of Crist, has pumped $3 million into the ballot effort that collected 1.1 million signatures.
He denies the marijuana initiative was planned by Democrats as an election ploy.
"I never saw this as a get out the vote trick. I saw it as the right thing to do," he said.
Morgan's father had emphysema and lung cancer and used marijuana in the waning days of his life, he said. His brother was paralyzed at 18 after a lifeguard accident and also used it to get relief from the pain of his injury.
"I'd like to say we were that smart," said Bob Poe, manager of Crist's fundraising committee, about the dovetailing of the governor's race with a liberal social issue. "But I think it's a case of, when the moon's in the 7th house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. A lot of things have come together."
Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee and Barbara Liston in Orlando. Editing by Andre Grenon