Florida’s legalization effort took a dramatic turn on Monday.
What began as a race between two campaigns to put a cannabis legalization initiative on Florida’s 2020 ballot—one backed by major cannabis companies and the other by grassroots cannabis advocates—has turned into a legislative legalization effort.
This morning, Senator Jeff Brandes introduced an adult use legalization bill, bringing the debate to the state capitol. Also this morning, Make it Legal Florida announced they will end their campaign, following the grassroots group, Sensible Florida, which dropped out in late 2019.
Cannabis Wire reported this week that the Make it Legal campaign brought in nearly $9 million to date, most of it from multistate operators Parallel (formerly Surterra) and MedMen, yet they were falling behind on signature gathering. The campaign even sued for a deadline extension.
“The narrow timeframe to submit and verify those signatures has prompted our committee to shift focus to now gain ballot access in 2022,” Nick Hansen, chair of Make it Legal Florida, said in a statement to Cannabis Wire. Hansen also leads government affairs in the region for multi-state operator MedMen. “We’re looking forward to Supreme Court review of our efforts and working in collaboration with state leaders to ensure the supermajority of Floridians’ voices are heard.”
How will a legalization bill fare in Florida’s legislature? That remains a big question. Already, the aforementioned case awaiting a ruling by the state Supreme Court will decide whether lawmakers’ implementing legislation for a voter-passed medical cannabis initiative in 2016 is unconstitutional. As Cannabis Wire has reported, at the heart of this decision is the requirement that medical cannabis companies be vertically integrated, and the cap on the number of business licenses that may be issued. The outcome could upend the medical cannabis industry in the state by essentially opening it up to more and smaller players, and it will likely play into the discussion around how adult use takes shape.
Florida lawmakers have already held hearings in anticipation of legalization conversations. The last one, held in December, during which the House Health Quality Subcommittee heard presentations on public health concerns, crime risks, and workplace drug testing, was described by one stakeholder as “Reefer Madness,” as Cannabis Wire reported.
Cannabis Wire caught up with Sen. Jeff Brandes, who represents the Pinellas County (which includes St. Petersburg) region, to learn more about Florida’s new legalization bill and why Brandes is a legalization supporter. (This interview is lightly edited for clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: How long has the legalization bill been in works?
Senator Jeff Brandes: Six months.
Cannabis Wire: Why did you decide to introduce it now?
Sen. Brandes: Well, the session is starting. This was the last day we had. It’s been with staff, we’ve been working through a variety of different issues. And we didn’t want to introduce it over the holidays because it’d be lost the holiday shuffle. And, so, today was the perfect day.
Cannabis Wire: Was this legalization bill prompted by the ballot initiative, or would you have introduced it regardless?
Send. Brandes: I would have introduced it regardless.
Cannabis Wire: Are you working at all with the Make it Legal folks or people like John Morgan?
Sen. Brandes: No. Not working with John Morgan at all. Nick Hansen, from MedMen [and the head of Make it Legal Florida], is one of my best friends. So, we talk on a regular basis, but there’s no connection. They’re not endorsing. They’re not supporting. They’re not, you know, anything on this bill. It’s just that I’ve had a long friendship with Nick.
Cannabis Wire: Was Nick’s friendship at all an influence on the desire to introduce the bill?
Sen. Brandes: No, not at all. No, I’ve worked on medical cannabis since the beginning. I introduced the smokeable [medical cannabis] bill last year. I truly believe this is a freedom and liberty issue. I’m a libertarian leaning Republican. And this is a bill that I think whose time has come. And I believe that if we’re going to start seeing constitutional amendments on this, we should have the ability to have a discussion, and the legislative process.
Cannabis Wire: Do you have a sense of whether there’s a preference among your colleagues for a legislative effort over a ballot initiative effort?
Sen. Brandes: Well, my preference is for the legislative effort. I think it provides more flexibility for the legislature to amend in the future. And frankly, I think this is generally what Floridians want, to go through the legislative process. There’s overwhelming, more than a super-majority, support for adult use in Florida. And so I think that the timing is right. I think the opportunity is now and I think, to me, this is just an issue of individual liberty.
Cannabis Wire: What do you think of the bill’s chances of passage? And have you at all talked to Governor Ron DeSantis about his support? Or other lawmakers regarding their support?
Sen. Brandes: I haven’t had a conversation with Governor DeSantis on this issue. This was just filed. We’ll see over the next few weeks, the levels of support we’re going to garner. I would imagine we’ll get a number of co-sponsors from members of the legislature, and that will be a good test of the support level for this legislation.
But I think it’s important to note that this legislation isn’t just about adult use. This is also about opening up the market to small businesses. Today, small businesses are prohibited from opening in the market because they can’t afford the $40 million for a license. This bill allows small businesses to enter the market because it breaks up vertical integration. Because frankly, vertical integration isn’t working anymore. It doesn’t even work for the existing players today. There are many of them that don’t want to be in the grow business. They want to be in the retail side. They don’t want to buy expensive processing equipment. So, I think there’s room for many growers, a handful of processors, and a variety of retailers. We think that this bill allows for that. And frankly, I think the entire industry is ready to move on from vertical integration, and the oligopoly cartel system that we created.
Especially when you see dormant licenses. People who have a license, but never intended to grow, process or sell, that are hoarding licenses and then trying to get somebody to buy them for $40 or $50 million. That, to me, is egregious and something the legislature needs to shut down ASAP.
The first half of this legislation is focused on small business. The second half is focused on adult use. And then the final piece is really the ability for us to expunge people’s records that have been previously convicted of possession. So we think that those things together create a trifecta of policies that are what’s best for Florida.