Florida Lawmakers’ Cannabis Legalization Efforts Expand But Face High Hurdles

Florida lawmakers will once again try to legalize adult use cannabis this session. Like in previous sessions, they face a steep challenge from the conservative state legislature. But this year, efforts have grown to include more lawmakers and more bills.

Two legislators from the 2020 legalization push have joined forces again. Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat, and Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican, have introduced bills (HB 343 and SB 710) that would legalize cannabis for adults 21 and over. 

The measures would also dismantle the vertical integration requirement in place for medical cannabis. Currently, business licensees must control the plant from seed to sale. Under the Brandes-Smith plan, businesses could apply for different types of individual licenses, such as growing, distribution, or retail. Single entities would still be able apply for more than one type of license, should they choose.

Smith and Brandes, along with other Florida politicians including Governor Ron DeSantis, have compared vertical integration to a “cartel” system. And, in October, as Cannabis Wire reported, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging this structure.

“It has essentially blocked small businesses from being able to enter the market,” Smith told Cannabis Wire. “Which, of course, disproportionately impacts minority-owned businesses that have long been disenfranchised by our draconian cannabis laws.”

Brandes added that it’s left Florida’s cannabis market accessible to only a handful of highly-valued companies.

“You shouldn’t have to be a billionaire to engage in the legal marijuana business in Florida,” he told Cannabis Wire.

Smith and Brandes hope to build up a bipartisan coalition for their effort. The House measure features two sponsors who represent distant ends of the political spectrum: progressive Anna Eskamani and conservative Anthony Sabatini. Eskamani and Sabatini also co-sponsored Smith’s legalization bill in 2019.

Smith understands this probably won’t be enough. In 2020, their legislation died without receiving a hearing in the House or Senate.

“Our bipartisan approach has many challenges to getting across the finish line,” he said. “Not least of which is Governor DeSantis saying that cannabis won’t be legalized for adult use under his watch.” DeSantis’ current term ends on January 3, 2023.

Other lawmakers are pushing legalization in 2021. Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer has filed a slew of bills that would legalize adult use cannabis, impose an excise tax on its sale, and set a $5,000 limit on the licensing fee for cannabis establishments. Farmer filed an adult use bill in 2019 that died in committee.

Farmer also believes that vertical integration has restricted the cannabis industry and he proposes doing away with it in his bill. But unlike Smith and Brandes’ legislation, SB 664 would allow adults 21 and older to grow up to six plants in their homes. He cautioned that the idea is strictly so people could grow it for personal use.

“We don’t want to allow for home cultivation to be an end-around on whatever safety and regulatory process we put in place,” Farmer told Cannabis Wire.

Lawmakers supporting legalization often point to the tax and fee revenue cannabis sales would generate. Legalization advocates have touted this aspect for years, including Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former medical cannabis lobbyist. In the economic aftermath of -19, they believe this argument has grown even stronger.

Because of coronavirus, Florida lawmakers are looking at a $2 billion shortfall—or more. Farmer said he’ll present legalization to his colleagues as a new revenue stream to help fill the state’s pandemic-sized budget hole.

“If I can’t get them on the science and the efficacy and the safety and the inequity of having the drug declared illegal, maybe we can get them on the financial aspect of it,” he said.

Another bill has been introduced by a freshman legislator, Representative Yvonne Hayes Hinson, who ran on a platform of legalizing adult use cannabis. 

Hinson’s reasons for introducing the measure, which was among her first, are personal. She became interested in cannabis because her niece has a rare genetic disease that causes slurred speech and spasms. It prompted Hinson to research Charlotte’s Web, a high-CBD oil named after a young Colorado girl named Charlotte Figi for whom it reduced seizures from epilepsy. 

After years of trying, Hinson’s sister was able to obtain Charlotte’s Web. Hinson said it has reduced her niece’s slurring and spasms, and improved her quality of life. 

Hinson is also a former Gainesville City Commissioner who has focused on reforming criminal justice.

“Legalizing it was already in the back of my mind,” Hinson told Cannabis Wire. “But when I started looking at criminal justice reform and realizing these people have been locked up with mandatory sentences for something we’re about to legalize—and [is] already legal in some states—I thought well, here’s a way to reduce some of this mass incarceration we’ve got.”

Hinson’s bill, HB 291, resembles Farmer’s effort in the Senate, including the ability to grow up to six plants at home. It likely faces an even higher hurdle, though, since she has just arrived in the legislature. 

That hasn’t stopped Hinson, a former educator, from considering ambitious ways to spend tax revenue from adult use legalization, such as creating a trust fund for universal child care and pre-kindergarten credits, which is included in separate legislation.

Hinson has found a co-sponsor for her bill in Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart, who is starting her second term in the legislature.

Another newcomer, Rep. Christopher Benjamin, has also filed an adult use legalization bill.

Legalization supporters believe they could have another ace up their sleeve for persuading skeptical lawmakers this year. Make It Legal Florida is pushing forward with a constitutional amendment that could appear on the 2022 ballot. The amendment failed to get enough signatures to appear on the 2020 ballot.

Brandes believes a measure in 2022 would likely pass. He said there’s no reason for lawmakers to be blindsided. “The timing may be today if we can find the political courage to get it done, or it can be in 2023 when the people of the state of Florida have told the legislature they must do this,” Brandes said. 

(The chair of Make It Legal Florida, Nick Hansen, is a close friend to Brandes, as the senator discussed in a Q&A with Cannabis Wire. Hansen is former regional director of government affairs for the multi-state operator MedMen and now in a similar role at The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, a major backer of legalization.)

“They never like it when voters force their hand,” Smith said. “But the reality is the only reason voters are forcing their hand on the issue via constitutional amendment is because of the legislature’s own inaction.”

However, this by no means ensures legalization will get a closer look than it has in recent years. Passing legalization would require many lawmakers to hold their nose and approve of a plant they have labeled a public health threat and crime risk. As Cannabis Wire previously reported, Florida lawmakers discussed these dangers at a 2019 hearing in the House Health Quality Subcommittee. One stakeholder likened the event to “Reefer Madness.”

If adult use is legalized in Florida, it could create one of the biggest markets in the US, as Florida is one of the nation’s most populous states. Florida is also one of the fastest growing and hosts millions of tourists each year.

“We are a prime market for expansion of adult use,” Brandes said. “Maybe the primest in the country.”

The legislature convenes its 60-day session today.

More Florida Lawmakers’ Cannabis Legalization Efforts Expand But Face High Hurdles