In the rough and tumble of US politics, Florida has been one of the country’s political wild cards. For outsiders, it is a bit hard to imagine the inner workings of such an unpredictable state. Yet, at its heart, Florida is a microcosm of the rest of the country having so many of the same political elements. Florida has at least one staunchly liberal metropolitan area, right-leaning rural areas within the orbit of the wider American south, and suburban areas that can go either way. Florida may be unpredictable, but, as was clearly on display in 2016, so is America as a whole.
So with respect to cannabis, Florida can be viewed as an interesting window into the national situation. While Florida is not Colorado, there has been substantial progress worth noting as well as some hopeful sentiments from key voices for the possibility of full legalization in the near future.
Where is Florida now?
In November 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment (known as “Amendment 2”) to greatly expand medical cannabis access, which until then, was strictly limited under the “Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act”. This Act, in effect only since 2014, limited access to patients with epilepsy, cancer, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Furthermore, it limited access specifically to non-smokeable oil from Charlotte’s Web, a CBD strain that is very low in THC. There was a 90-day waiting period during which a patient had to be under the care of a doctor before receiving cannabis.
In June 2017, the state legislature passed a bill implementing Amendment 2. The new law adds chronic muscle spasms, HIV and AIDs, glaucoma, PTSD, Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis to the list of qualifying conditions. Vaping, edibles, oils, sprays, and tinctures are all available but the bill as passed prohibits smoking.
The waiting period has been eliminated after an outcry over how it affected terminally ill patients. Doctors still need to be specially certified to recommend cannabis, but the training course has been reduced from eight hours to two. The new law also provides for the expansion of production and retail. Patients and caregivers must be 21 years old, and minors must have a certified caregiver.
The ongoing controversy over smoking
Just this past May, a state Circuit Court judge ruled that the ban on smoking is unconstitutional. Supporters of the original amendment argued that legislators had overruled the will of the voters, and Judge Karen Gievers ruled in their favor in May.
According to Gievers:
"Section 381.986, Florida Statutes (2017) unconstitutionally restricts rights that are protected in the Constitution, and so the statutory prohibition against the use of smokeable marijuana permitted by [a] qualifying patient is declared invalid and unenforceable. Qualifying patients have the right to use the form of medical marijuana for [the] treatment of their debilitating medical condition as recommended by their certified physicians, including the use of smokable marijuana in private places."
However, that decision was appealed. The resulting automatic stay on the ruling was lifted by Gievers in June, but opponents filed a brief this month arguing that an appeals court should support the ban, citing the deleterious health effects of smoking. Of course, none of these crusaders are pushing to make tobacco smoking illegal, despite the mountain of evidence documenting its health risks. The issue has not been resolved.
The question of smokeables wasn’t the only way the state legislature tried to limit the amendment after voters had already had their say. The legislature also tried to limit the number of dispensaries licensed by the state and tried to require that cannabis business operators “vertically integrate” every step of the supply chain, including production, cultivation, and distribution, into a single license application. These constraints were also found unconstitutional by a judge this summer although, as with smokeables, the end of the controversy is nowhere in sight.
It might be an understatement to say that medical cannabis has been a controversial point for Florida. Political indecisiveness in the state seems to have outlived the Bush era. However, it’s crucial to remember that 71 percent of Florida voters supported a medical bill with no mention of a smoking ban or other limitations. As is the case on the federal level, this seems to be an issue of a die-hard conservative establishment rather than popular resistance. For many observers, this suggests that further progress may only be a matter of time.
Despite this extended legal controversy, some important Floridian voices are calling for, or even predicting, full legalization in Florida in the near future.
Several of the leaders in the Democratic primary for the upcoming governor’s race have called for legalization. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine advocated legalizing cannabis in an ad this past June. He cited $600 million in potential revenue and social justice concerns as reasons for “forward-looking reform.”
Levine said if he is elected, he “will carefully move to legalize the sale of limited quantities of recreational marijuana for adults, either through the Legislature or by a vote of the people of Florida, while learning from the many states that have already moved — or are moving — this way.”
Notably, he added:
“Finally, and morally, this is the right thing to do as today black Floridians are four times more likely to be arrested than whites for drug possession in some counties. As a result, our minority communities grow to distrust the police, and their neighborhoods are over-policed, while ruining employment opportunities. This is a wrong that must be righted.”
Two of his opponents, Andrew Gillum and Chris King, have also called for recreational legalization, and another, former representative Gwen Graham, has advocated for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug possession and decriminalization of cannabis possession. On the Republican side, both Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis are opposed to any legalization.
It is important to note that Democrats have not had much of a say in state government in Florida for the last 20 years. It is, however, considered to be a good year nationally for Democrats who are motivated to turn out in protest of Trump. Polls show a close race in all matchups, with some showing an edge for the Democrats.
Furthermore, Orlando attorney John Morgan, who was responsible for much of the funding for the medical legalization effort, says he plans to fund a recreational use measure for the 2020 ballot. In addition to his own personal funding, he is drumming up support from US cannabis companies. "At this particular time in America, people are tired of arguing about marijuana. Just legalize it and let it be," Morgan told the USA Today Network.
Florida is at a turning point when it comes to cannabis, and the upcoming election will play a big role in the direction it takes. Will the state settle for a limited medical program with constraints imposed by its political establishment, or will Floridians push forward to count themselves among the growing cohort of post-prohibition states? Whatever the result, it could be a bellwether of what to expect on a federal level in the near future. As always, we will be watching the state closely for signs of the future.