When New Times sat down with medical-marijuana advocate and political consultant Ben Pollara earlier this month, Pollara said he wasn't concerned that Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of Publix founder George Jenkins, had donated $800,000 to a group trying to keep medicinal weed illegal.
"I still think 'shopping is a pleasure,'" Pollara said, referencing the supermarket chain's famous slogan.
But it turns out tens of thousands of people don't quite agree with one of the loudest medical-marijuana advocates in the state. As of Monday morning, more than 41,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding that Jenkins Barnett stop using the chain's profits to "fund [her] political beliefs."
The petition was started by Heidi Handford, who is married to Irvin Rosenfeld, one of America's first medical-marijuana patients.
"I never thought buying groceries could be a political statement," Handford writes. "That is, until I realized the family that owns Publix donated nearly a million dollars to a platform that I strongly oppose."
Typically, Publix, which is based in Lakeland, Florida, is ranked among the state's most beloved — and most valuable — companies. Floridians have a tendency to defend the supremacy of Publix sub sandwiches as one would defend their grandmother's cooking. But after news broke in July that Jenkins Barnett had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Drug Free Florida committee, pot activists erupted online.
In November, Floridians will vote on Amendment 2, which would legalize medical marijuana statewide.
Jenkins Barnett, 59, was reportedly Publix's largest shareholder as of June. She spent years running the company's charity wing, where she helped the company donate at least $25 million a year to a host of charities. After orchestrating a $250,000 donation to help the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Jenkins Barnett reportedly stepped down from her position on the company's board after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in June.
Though a Publix spokesperson told New Times the donation to Drug Free Florida was not made in Publix's name, but was instead a personal choice by Jenkins Barnett, that fact has not stopped Floridians from directing ire at the grocery chain. Marijuana activists have begun picketing outside Publix stores, both at the company's Lakeland headquarters and outside multiple supermarkets in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Many critics point to the fact that, although Publix itself is not supporting the fight against medical marijuana, the money Jenkins Barnett used likely came from the company's profits.
"Publix’s donation to Drug Free Florida finances a campaign against medical marijuana, a therapy my spouse has successfully used for over 30 years to treat his rare bone disorder," Handford, the petitioner, wrote.
She said Rosenfeld, her spouse, was the "longest surviving federal medical marijuana patient in the nation." In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that Rosenfeld, who smokes nearly ten joints a day to cope with a rare bone disorder, was one of the few surviving patients left receiving federal medical marijuana as part of a program the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began running in 1976. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush's administration halted the program, and Rosenfeld remains one of the few people left grandfathered into the measure.
Having seen firsthand the good that medical marijuana can do, Handford wrote that she was infuriated to see Jenkins Barnett spending money to scare people into voting against Amendment 2.
"The money I was spending on groceries was being used to take down the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative," she wrote. "This bill would allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer, glaucoma, and Crohn’s. My significant other is proof that this drug eases suffering, and I feel betrayed by a corporation I used to patronize."
Opponents have argued it's hypocritical for Publix to sell alcohol, tobacco, and opiate prescription drugs while the company's heiress fights to defeat legal marijuana, which is less addictive than those substances.
Others have speculated that Jenkins Barnett is fighting the measure to ensure that marijuana doesn't cripple the chain's pharmacy business — according to a study released in July, doctors prescribe far fewer opiate painkillers in states where medical pot is legal.
"I think it’s hypocritical that Publix has no problem selling drugs like opioids, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine across their stores and pharmacies, but they use my money to dispute what numerous studies have shown: Medical marijuana is medicine," Handford wrote.
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