Success is a subjective term, especially in politics. But in the case of Florida Democrats who want to legalize marijuana, simply sustaining a conversation on the issue in Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature is something they deem as an accomplishment in and of itself.
Democrats have filed at least 10 marijuana-related bills in the 2022 Legislative Session. One proposal would outright legalize marijuana (HB 467), while another would decriminalize the drug and other addictive substances.
It’s a long shot, the sponsors concede. But many insist the conversation alone is legislatively fruitful.
“It’s probably more a matter of time than it is anything else,” House Minority Leader Evan Jenne told reporters Monday on the Democratic-led effort to shape Florida’s drug policy.
Democrats aren’t fighting alone. In trying to legalize marijuana, they enjoy the support of activists, and even some Republican lawmakers, who they say opt to stay silent on the issue.
Many voters are on board, too. A 2019 poll by the University of North Florida shows most Floridians support legalizing marijuana for adult consumption.
At a news conference inside the Capitol Monday, Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph of Miami rallied supporters around the effort, even while acknowledging the road is long.
Joseph is the sponsor of a measure (HB 725) that would decriminalize the possession of cannabis and other addictive drugs.
The bill would further change the penalties for possession to a $50 noncriminal fine, which would then help fund drug rehabilitation programs and more.
The measure, she told supporters, would effectively end Florida’s involvement in America’s “war on drugs.”
“This bill prioritizes people by encouraging treatment and safety in an effort to preserve lives and freedom rather than discarding them through criminalization and incarceration,” she added.
Joseph highlighted ways the proposal and others like it are fruitful, even if they don’t reach the Governor’s desk. The dialogue, she suggested, can raise awareness, shape prosecutorial discretion and reframe an employer’s position on medical marijuana.
“My goal is actually to preserve lives and not just pretend to,” she said alongside a crowd of cheering supporters.
There are a variety of ways Florida can reform its marijuana policies. In 2016, Floridians OK’d a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the sick and ill access to medical marijuana.
Now, however, many activists say it’s time to go further.
“Negative views toward drugs and people who use them is a major factor in the overdose crisis,” said Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville. “By reshaping the way Floridians think about drugs, we can talk about drug use more openly and more honestly.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is among those supporting decriminalization. A former public defender, she contends even a minor drug offense can impede a person’s ability to live and thrive.
“HB 725 is a monumental step forward in addressing the unintended consequences of these convictions that create barriers to gainful employment, housing, property ownership and educational opportunities, which ultimately hurt our communities and Florida’s economy as a whole,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Shelby Scarpa Monday on Fried’s behalf.
The NAACP also is on board, calling the bill a good “first step.” They assert Florida’s current drug laws disproportionately impact the lives of minorities.
“This whole war on drugs has become a war on Black and Brown communities,” said NAACP lawyer Mutaqee Akbar.
States including New York, Virginia and New Mexico legalized recreational marijuana in 2021 via voter initiatives.
Meanwhile, three states — Arizona, Montana and New Jersey — OK’d recreational marijuana use in 2020 via legislation.