Florida’s Complicated Prospects of Cannabis Legalization

    A new poll shows that a large majority of people in Florida want cannabis legalized for adult use. But efforts to legalize in the Sunshine State have faced major barriers over the years. The current target for a ballot measure is 2024. But it’s far from a sure thing, and the specifics of the measure in question are highly controversial.

    The survey, from University of North Florida’s (UNF) Public Opinion Research Lab (PORL), found that fully 70 percent of registered voters support adult-use legalization, with 29 percent opposed. This includes 78 percent of independents, 75 percent of Democrats and even 57 percent of Republicans. Majorities in every age group and every named demographic group want legalization.

    Constitutional barriers unique to the state have made it harder to get legalization over the line.

    Cannabis reform has struggled for years in Florida—but not because people don’t support it. Instead, constitutional barriers unique to the state have made it harder to get legalization over the line.

    In 2014, voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical cannabis, with over 57 percent support. But it didn’t take effect, because any constitutional amendment must earn at least 60 percent support—a simple majority just isn’t enough. The late casino magnate and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson—who never lived in Florida—donated over $5 million to the opposition campaign.

    Medical cannabis was eventually legalized, however, after a new ballot measure in 2016 won with 71 percent support.

    By 2021, advocates were busy working on two separate campaigns to bring full legalization to the ballot in 2022. But they never had a chance—the state Supreme Court killed both measures, declaring that they violated the constitution by using “misleading” language.

    Some of the state’s most powerful politicians also stand in the way of legalization. Both Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) have gone on record opposing it. DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, will soon have an even bigger platform to champion an anti-cannabis stance.

    In August 2022, Smart & Safe Florida filed a ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis in the 2024 election. But there’s much work to be done for this campaign to even make the ballot. In February, it surpassed a threshold of 294,000 voter signatures, which means the state Supreme Court must review the proposal and determine if it’s constitutional. If it passes the test, then the campaign must raise a minimum of 891,589 signatures to get on the ballot for November 2024.

    According to Marijuana Moment, the campaign is backed by Florida’s medical marijuana industry and mostly paid for by its biggest medical operator, Trulieve. The company has provided $20 million in funding. This raises two important realities.

    First, without serious money it would be difficult or impossible to succeed. The last time Floridians voted on a marijuana measure, to legalize medical in 2016, the campaigns for and against it each raised a combined total of $8.9 million. Florida is the third most populous state, with nearly 22 million residents. Any statewide campaign will need to invest heavily to cover large media markets like Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.   

    Second, the fact that this campaign is primarily funded by the medical marijuana industry means the initiative would inevitably benefit their business interests. Trulieve, the main funder, is headquartered in Florida but has operations in nine US states. One of just 16 companies licensed to sell medical cannabis in Florida, Trulieve is by far the biggest: It controls about 51 percent of the market—serving 380,000 patients and owning one in every four dispensaries.

    As Filter has reported, medical marijuana businesses have frequently conflicted with smaller startups and social justice-oriented cannabis activists—and on occasion, this division has been enough to kill legalization efforts.

    Medical cannabis businesses could convert to sell for adult use, and the legislature would be authorized but not required to license additional businesses.

    Of course, nearly every state that has considered full legalization did so after first legalizing medical. But states often take “baby steps” with medical legalization, putting up barriers and regulations that make it prohibitively expensive for all but the biggest companies to break into the market. When it comes to full legalization, you often then end up in a situation where those few medical marijuana companies are given “first-mover” advantage in obtaining licenses and beginning adult-use sales—something they’ll often use their financial and political power to defend.

    The current legalization effort in Florida looks to be following this familiar pattern. It would allow over-21s to buy and possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis. Medical cannabis businesses could convert to sell for adult use, and the legislature would be authorized but not required to license additional businesses. There would be no expungement of past marijuana convictions, no effort to assist Black, Brown and low-income business owners and those targeted by the drug war, and a ban on cannabis home growing.

    Since the campaign launch, Smart & Safe Florida has therefore faced stiff opposition not only from DeSantis supporters, but from progressive cannabis consumers and advocates.

    “Congratulations to Trulieve on one of the most revolting, monopolistic measures yet,” reacted attorney and cannabis justice advocate Shaleen Title, according to the Miami New Times. “Good Luck.”

    “It’s hostile to small business,” wrote Brian Brown, a cannabis cartoonist. “All this initiative really does is allow existing operators like Trulieve that already are in a limited-competition state to also sell to tourists and other people coming into Florida.”

    Even if Floridians end up getting the legalization that most want in 2024, many will remain dissatisfied with the form it takes.

    In response to these concerns, Trulieve argues that the initiative is intentionally narrow so it can pass constitutional muster and survive a legal challenge. According to Leafly, the company tweeted last year: “[Home-grow] couldn’t be put in this version if we want to get past the Supreme Court.” And Trulieve spokesperson Steve Vancore added, “[The] Smart & Safe campaign had to choose a very narrow lane and are legally only able to tackle one issue at a time.” The campaign has suggested that these social justice-focused issues will have to be addressed at a later point.

    While many activists are likely to doubt that vague promise, the Smart & Safe initiative is Florida’s only realistic prospect to legalize in the near future. That discomfort speaks, perhaps, to why the Women’s Initiative for a Safe and Equitable Florida (WISE) is both endorsing the adult-use legalization effort and filing a separate initiative to legalize home growing. 

    This home-grow petition would allow medical marijuana patients over 21 or their caregivers to cultivate cannabis for personal use. The health department would decide how many plants each person could grow. Home growing is a basic right of cannabis consumers in most legal states—it gives people an alternative to dispensaries, can save them money, and allows them to grow exactly the right kind of cannabis for their unique needs. For those eligible, it could certainly help. 

    But even if Floridians end up getting the legalization that most want in 2024, many will remain dissatisfied with the form it takes.


    Photograph by Tim Foster via Unsplash

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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