Following a U.S. House vote legalizing marijuana, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Florida has a chance to lead on weed.
Fried, a candidate for Governor and a former industry lobbyist, sat down with Florida Politics for an exclusive interview. She said Florida is behind on cannabis law and needs to do more to make sure the growing industry lifts minority communities often targeted by bad drug policy. With the possibility of federal decriminalization on the horizon, Fried said that must change.
“We have not moved the ball forward,” Fried said. “The Department of Health keeps hurting the patients all across the state every time they keep doing new rule-making that limits the amount of dosing and making it more difficult for patients and having to jump through hoops.
“And the only way to fix this is to have me as Governor.”
The House last week voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617). The 220-204 vote broke down nearly along party lines. Of note, two of the three Republicans to cross the aisle in favor of the legislation were from Florida: Reps. Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast.
The legislation still has a hazy future in the Senate, and it’s still unclear what President Joe Biden will do if the legislation lands on his desk.
But whatever happens with this particular bill, Fried said it’s clear the relationship between the federal and state government has fundamentally shifted in the last few years when it comes to marijuana enforcement. It used to be that the federal government continued raiding dispensaries even if a state changed its laws. That strategy has shifted as Florida and 36 states legalized marijuana in some form.
Fried’s election in 2018, the only Democrat to win statewide in Florida that year or any since 2012, was powered by industry dollars — sometimes to the chagrin of financial institutions.
On the cusp of change, she said Florida should have a chief executive who understands the importance of evolving legislation. She sees this as a matter of economic development, criminal justice reform and health care.
“It’s a win-win for our state. The people want it. And as Governor, I’m going to listen to the people,” she said.
Florida voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment allowing marijuana for medical use.
Fried has pushed forward from her perch leading the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on issues from edibles to hemp, but feels discouraged a more progressive approach did not endure.
“I am very surprised because, unfortunately, I hear from patients and doctors every single day that keep saying that it is becoming more and more difficult to get people through the program, to keep people on the program,” she said.
“The costs are still very expensive for patients. So we need to be doing more to actually help our patients. Telehealth should have been something that should have been continued from the pandemic. We should be doing reciprocity. There are a lot of rules that are in place that are making it more expensive for the dispensaries. And certainly, there should be some kind of requirement that dispensaries open up in low-income communities. If you see where dispensaries are all over our state, they’re in high-traffic areas and are not in minority communities and low-income communities where it could help in getting more jobs, but also accessibility for patients.”
That’s especially troublesome as the war on drugs at its peak often had disparate negative impacts on minorities, Fried said. Even today, the implementation of laws regulating the industry has institutionally resulted in benefits that leave behind those same communities.
“We’ve got 22 license holders in our state. None are minority-owned,” she said. “There is one that just recently bought into the marketplace. And that’s cookies. But that is it.”
She blames the lack of diversity on the limited number of licenses issued by the state and vertical integration requirements that state operations must grow and sell their own wares.
“The fact that everything is so vertically integrated creates an extremely high cost to get into the market and doesn’t allow an opportunity for somebody who wants to grow just one strain to go out and specialize in one specific product,” she said.
The marketplace needs to allow more joint ventures, she argued, which will create opportunities. The state also needs to dispose of a Level 2 background check when it comes to drug possession charges.
“That so many in our minority communities who have been disadvantaged and have been the targets in the war on drugs now can’t participate in this booming lucrative business is a travesty,” she said.
As Governor, Fried said she will fight for updates to the law. This could be a winning issue politically at a time when polls show a majority of Americans of all political ideologies favor legalizing marijuana to at least some degree.
Fried will continue her push for change from the Florida Cabinet. But she said the results she’s already achieved in pushing against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration should win public notice. She’s running now for the Democratic nomination for Governor against U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist — who voted in favor of the MORE Act in Congress — and state Sen. Annette Taddeo.
Fried is the only one with much success, she said, in battling against the DeSantis agenda.
“I have been able to push him to do things like bring down SNAP benefits and educational funding last year, including exposing when he has not been honest with the people of our state,” she said. “I also am the only one who’s been able to win statewide as a Democrat while having the largest vote total in certain counties across our state-swinging areas that no Democrat has swung before and overperforming from the rest of the ticket in 2018.
“I am our most reliable candidate to run against Ron DeSantis based on the things that I’ve been able to accomplish not just as Commissioner, but my entire life of service to our state. The things that I fight for show that I’m an advocate and that I don’t back down during hard times.”