Before the start of the latest legislative session on March 2nd, numerous bills directed at broadening Floridians’ access to marijuana were proposed.
Over a Dozen Bills Submitted For Weed Reform in Florida
“This is a coordinated effort to give the Legislature as many options to choose from as possible to legalize cannabis legislatively,” explained Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith – a Democratic Senator who introduced a pair of bills that would legalize recreational marijuana in Florida.
The slew of proposed bills widely vary in scale – with some just calling for revisions to existing medical cannabis laws, while bolder proposals, like Smith’s, aim for full recreational legalization. According to a 2020 poll conducted at the University of North Florida, 64% of Floridians stand with Rep. Smith in support of legalizing adult-use cannabis. But despite the strong public support and large goals, Rep. Smith still recognizes the importance of retooling the state’s current medical marijuana program.
“You shouldn’t have to be a billionaire to engage in the legal marijuana business in Florida,” Smith told Cannabis Wire. Speaking on the current program, he said that, “It has essentially blocked small businesses from being able to enter the market. Which, of course, disproportionately impacts minority-owned businesses that have long been disenfranchised by our draconian cannabis laws.”
Currently, to enter the medical marijuana business in Florida, business licensees must take on the full brunt of the cannabis market – controlling the plant from seed to sale. Many Florida lawmakers – including Rep. Carlos Smith (D) and Sen. Jeff Brandes (R) – have likened the existing medical marijuana program to “a state-sanctioned cartel”.
There are groups of bills that seek to dismantle the current licensing system for something more feasible for hopeful entrants into Florida’s cannabis industry. One set suggests the establishment of a licensing system for retail facilities, with similar bills suggesting separate licenses for cannabis retailers, transporters, and cultivators. Other tweaks to the current program that have been proposed include raising limits on how much medical marijuana doctors can recommend for use and adding protections for state employees and job applicants who use medical cannabis.
While talks of recreational legalization and raised cannabis limits may garner criticism from conservative representatives, other proposed bills have seemingly gained support across both party lines. These bills would allow review and resentencing for marijuana-related crimes, in addition to removing criminal penalties and mandatory minimum sentences in some situations.
Jeff Brandes, a Republican Senator from central Florida, said that, “[his] argument has always been that, you know, this should be a legislative matter. And if the Legislature fails to act, then the people should be able to act to pass it via constitutional amendment.”
Newly proposed bills come alongside that very movement. The Make It Legal advocacy group is currently just 200,000 signatures away from putting the issue of recreational marijuana in front of voters as a state constitutional amendment in 2022. But Sen. Brandes doesn’t intend on waiting until 2022, which is why he introduced HB 343 and SB 710, legislation aiming at legalizing adult-use cannabis, alongside Rep. Smith.
Florida Reps Move to Legalize Recreational Use
The bills sponsored by Sen. Brandes and Rep. Smith would allow people 21 and older to legally purchase 2.5 ounces of marijuana, but it would also restructure the imbalanced licensing system of Florida’s current marijuana market. By allowing businesses to apply for individual growing, distribution, and/or sales licenses, the bills would “establish a robust and free-market regulatory approach to the governance of cultivation, processing, and retail sales of both medical and adult-use marijuana.”
For the lawmakers behind the bills, there are a myriad of reasons why they’re tackling recreational marijuana. Speaking to WFLA News Channel 8, Jeff Brandes said, “it’s a personal liberty issue for me. It’s really a question of when adult use is going to be legal.”
Rep. Smith agreed, saying, “the need to end Florida’s prohibition of responsible adult use of cannabis is long overdue. This bill creates a sensible bipartisan framework for legalization that can earn the support needed to pass the Florida legislature. It doesn’t include everything I’d like to see, but it’s the fresh start Floridians deserve to finally move past the draconian cannabis prohibition era.”
Sen. Brandes and Rep. Smith aren’t alone in their push for legalization. Sen. Gary Farmer, Rep. Yvonne Hinson, and Rep. Chris Benjamin are all behind separate proposals that include adult-use cannabis, and surrounding support is growing even louder with the economic strife caused by COVID-19.
“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, said Sen. Gary Farmer. Looking at the $2 billion deficit in the aftermath of COVID-19, the Senator plans on presenting a legal marijuana market as a strong new revenue stream for the state.
Still, despite a growing budget gap and clear public support for legalization, Republican lawmakers continue tightening the leash on marijuana use. “Our bipartisan approach has many challenges to getting across the finish line,” said Sen. Carlos Smith. “Not least of which is Governor DeSantis saying that cannabis won’t be legalized for adult use under his watch.”
On top of the governor’s open disapproval of legalization efforts, a pair of new legislative proposals by Republic lawmakers would place THC caps in medical marijuana products.
“They never like it when voters force their hand,” Rep. 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.”
Projections show that adult-use legalization in Florida would create one of the largest marijuana markets in the United States. “We are a prime market for expansion of adult use,” Sen. Brandes said. “Maybe the primest in the country.”
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