Earlier in 2020, legal adult use cannabis in Florida appeared likely to become a reality by year’s end. After a well-funded legalization campaign failed to gather enough support or signatures for the 2020 ballot, advocates turned their attention to the state capitol. But a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use, which would have shaken up Florida’s existing medical cannabis industry, died last week without a single hearing.
Still, its sponsor vows to press ahead. So does that well-funded group, which is now aiming to put a constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot.
The legislative measure—SB 1860—would have legalized cannabis for adults aged twenty-one and older and ended Florida’s vertical integration regulatory scheme for medical cannabis. The state’s current medical cannabis operators are required to control every aspect of production and retail, from seed to sale, which some argue unfairly benefits large companies. This regulation, meanwhile, is also at the heart of a legal challenge before the state Supreme Court. (Read Cannabis Wire’s primer on that court case here.)
State Senator Jeff Brandes, who has led his chamber’s cannabis policy efforts for years, failed to get even one hearing on the bill before lawmakers adjourned for the year. The conservative Florida legislature has often been slow to act on cannabis-related bills, and in some instances has worked to roll back the industry. The Florida House tried and failed for the second time this year, for example, to cap the amount of THC in cannabis products at 10%.
Still, Brandes argues that legal adult use cannabis sales in Florida are inevitable. “It’s not a question of if Florida will have adult use cannabis, it’s a question of when,” Brandes told Cannabis Wire.
And, he adds, it is important to start a conversation now about what the industry should look like. “There’s a growing discontent among current providers about the burdensome regulatory structure that Florida has created,” he said. The vertical integration system makes it expensive even for multi-state operators to get started in the state.
Looming on the horizon, meanwhile, is the constitutional amendment to legalize adult use in 2022. That proposal, pushed by Make It Legal Florida, would, unlike Brandes’s bill, uphold the current vertical integration requirement. This year, Make It Legal Florida failed to submit the required 766,200 signatures to appear on November’s ballot. But Nick Hansen, who chairs the organization and is a close friend of Brandes, said the group is instead turning its attention to 2022. The group had submitted more than 550,000 valid signatures as of Monday.
The state’s top court is set to review the amendment’s language, as required by law, later this year. Lawyers for the state Senate want the court to toss out the amendment, arguing that the case is moot because it failed to meet this year’s deadline. But state Attorney General Ashley Moody, who opposes the amendment, argued in a brief filed last week that the justices should consider the measure anyway.
“The Court will possess jurisdiction over this case until such time as it issues the advisory opinion or the Sponsor withdraws its initiative with the Secretary of State, thereby mooting the proceedings,” wrote Moody’s office, in a move that goes against the Florida Senate.
There is another cloud of uncertainty, too, this one cast by a separate case before the Florida Supreme Court. The lawsuit, brought by a Tampa-based cannabis company, Florigrown LLC, claims that the state’s vertical integration requirement and its cap on available cannabis licenses—as established in the 2017 law that legalized medical cannabis in Florida—are unconstitutional. The ruling, which is expected later this year, could drastically change the industry, opening it up to competition.
Brandes worries the outcome of the Florigrown case could create a “potentially massive disruption in the marketplace.” If the court tosses out the current regulatory scheme, there would be nothing in place to supplant it. Despite that, lawmakers were reluctant to act on any cannabis bills this legislative session. Brandes said there was a push to adjourn for the year before the court could rule on the issue, rather than proactively pass measures to shore up state regulations.
Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides about the law’s constitutionality, lawmakers will almost certainly take up cannabis-related legislation next session, which begins in March 2021. Lawmakers, pushed by growing public pressure for adult use, have made it clear that they would rather shape the industry through legislation than have voters decide on Make It Legal Florida’s proposal in 2022.