Democrats, Jeff Brandes hash out Florida’s cannabis future

marijuana
Legalized cannabis is coming, advocates predict.

Floridians have the constitutional right to use medical cannabis, but leaders from both parties continue to push for expansion of the regulated adult-use market.

A Monday town hall convened by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s loudest voice in favor of cannabis law reform and its only statewide elected Democrat, demonstrated how the push for legalization is flowering among Republicans and Democrats alike.

Additionally, Florida’s current vertical integration structure in the medical sector came under fire, the latest indicator of a growing consensus that wants to make Florida’s cannabis market look more like those structured differently elsewhere in the country.

“Prohibition came and went on alcohol and it’s time to do the same on cannabis,” Fried said.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes noted the push for cannabis policy modernization has lasted the better part of the decade, and he expressed his longstanding frustration with the “cartel” of licensees. The system has incentivized some bad actors to flip licenses they never used, trying to sell them for tens of millions of dollars.

This “cartel” raises prices and limits patient choice, Brandes said, with artificial product shortages and problems with consistency and access created for medical patients due to the oligopoly setup.

“We have essentially through (vertical integration) created a situation where you have to be a major corporation,” Brandes groused, noting vertical integration is not the model in most marijuana markets. He also noted that the model shuts out Black farmers from the industry, saying a “market-based approach” would address equity concerns in the predominately White, male, and heavily capitalized sector.

Brandes is carrying the Senate version of an adult-use legalization bill. While the bill appears stalled this year, he predicted that legalization is not a matter of if but when for the Sunshine State.

“I can’t see Florida not having adult use by 2024,” Brandes predicted, urging the Legislature to pass legislation through the committee process before a constitutional amendment crafts a system for them. Potentially, the question could be before voters in the form of an amendment as early as next year.

Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell, like Brandes, is a veteran of the gradual evolution of cannabis in Florida. He noted that Black farmers are shut out of the licenses currently available, saying it was “very, very concerning.”

Powell also criticized vertical integration, saying it privileged big corporations over smaller entities, and urged a social equity program as Florida’s cannabis space matures.

Rep. Carlos G. Smith, an East Orlando Democrat, has pushed for cannabis reform throughout his time in the Legislature, including the House version of pro-legalization legislation with Brandes this year.

“This is bipartisan legislation,” Smith said, important because GOP support is necessary to make legalization happen.

While the legalization bill won’t move, and while Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes an adult-use, non-medical market, momentum may be with them and other legalization proponents as reflected in at least one other issue.

A THC cap proposal that was moving in the House seems to have stalled after DeSantis said he didn’t back it, but it still elicited ire from the panel.

“There’s no reason for it,” Fried said bluntly, saying that of the 510,000 patients on the registry, none have advocated for caps.

“It’s a dog of an issue,” agreed Brandes, whose Judiciary Committee won’t hear the bill in the Senate.

But even with THC caps seemingly resolved, other cannabis issues clearly will animate legislators and voters in the near term, including employment protections for medical marijuana patients and charting a path forward for the sector.

Fried, who will present as the cannabis reform candidate if or when she runs for Governor next year, said all the right things advocating for a “smart regulatory framework,” including that vertical integration has got to go, and urging that there still be a “robust medical program” when adult-use cannabis is finally legal.

Regarding employment protections, Fried said one potential solution was to convince insurance companies to exempt cannabis from drug testing as a “disqualifier” for a drug-free workplace, a designation that gives corporations a break on insurance rates.

That may be an aspirational goal, as well as so-called “home grow.”

“We will get there,” Fried said, but there are “some hurdles to overcome in our Legislature.”

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]



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