Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist doubled down on his pledge to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida and expunge the records of nonviolent marijuana offenders during a panel discussion centered on the plant Wednesday.
Crist first pledged to legalize the plant for all adult Floridians in October. The panel was held on April 20, or 4/20, a date known in pop culture as the unofficial marijuana holiday. While users of the devil’s lettuce often mark the occasion by getting blazed, supporters of legalization typically use the day to raise awareness on the issue.
The panel, which took place in Tallahassee’s LeRoy Collins Downtown Library, was filled with former Leon County elected officials and student leaders from Florida State University and Florida A&M University. Almost two dozen attended to listen, mostly students from the two universities.
Crist, who is currently a sponsor of federal legislation to legalize it nationwide, said the pain relief ability of marijuana and its safety compared to opioids is one of the main reasons he supports its legalization. His sister, Margaret Crist Wood, died of cancer in 2015, before medical marijuana was legal in the state. He said he wished it would have been an option for her at the time.
“I couldn’t help but think if marijuana had already been made legalized widely, that she may have been able to benefit from that,” Crist said. “In our society, a lot of people who experience pain end up sadly getting addicted to opioids and other stronger, powerful type drugs that can be extremely detrimental and fatal.”
Crist said legalization would allow the state to regulate the recreational industry to decrease the amount of laced substances in marijuana, protecting them from dangerous outcomes.
He added that legalization could also open up millions in annual tax revenue from the multi-billion dollar industry, as seen in states that legalized recreational use. Crist said the revenue could be used to increase teacher salaries and fund increased training for the state’s law enforcement officers.
“We’re the third-largest state in America, and we are 49th in what we pay our teachers, almost dead last,” Crist said. “We can make up a lot of ground in that area from the taxing of cannabis.”
Crist also attacked Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying his opposition to recreational marijuana, support of the 6-week abortion ban, and other issues counter his narrative that he is making Florida a “Free State”
“He is an authoritarian. He wants to tell you what to do every moment of your life. Whether it’s not to be able to have recreational marijuana, not to have the right to choose as a woman, not to use mail-in ballots, if you want to do that to vote, or have drop boxes in minority communities throughout the state of Florida,” Crist said.
One of the panelists, former Leon County Commissioner Cliff Thaell, pointed out that the application of marijuana laws nationally and statewide have disproportionately targeted Black people, and legalization and record expunging could be a positive step to correct that.
“Quite frankly, if you’re well to do, especially if you’re White, if you live in certain ZIP codes, you’re smoking marijuana, you’re doing it anyway. You might have a Scotch first, but you’re smoking marijuana and your friends are too,” Thaell said.
Thaell also argued that legalization is overwhelmingly popular. According to Pew Research, over 60% of Americans back recreational marijuana, while 91% back either recreational or medical.
Chris Baker, a FAMU student government senator and member of the university’s chapter of Omega Psi Phi, told Crist while on the panel that people being incarcerated for marijuana possession has separated families across the country, perpetuating trauma on children who grew up in fragmented homes. He said that trauma is often ignored.
“Every time somebody is taken behind bars for possession of marijuana, no matter how big or small, think about a child losing a father or parents, a mother, a brother, a sister,” Baker said. “Sometimes people look at the behavior of kids and are quick to label them criminals and future criminals. Think about the trauma that came just from little possession charges. When we talk about decriminalizing, you’re not just talking about decriminalizing marijuana, you are talking about reuniting families.”
Closing out the event, Crist said he expects Florida’s gubernatorial race to be the most-watched race in the country this election cycle, and encouraged all those in attendance to go out and vote. He said he is confident he can beat DeSantis.
“The road to the White House goes through Florida,” he said. “He has support a mile wide and an inch deep, and a little bit of pressure will make it crash down.”