When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill on his desk to end the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana, he’ll resolve one of the biggest disputes in a two-year fight in which cannabis companies have pushed to lift what they deem improper restrictions on a marketplace now legitimized in the state Constitution.
They litigated. They lobbied. And they bet — a lot — on the right politicians.
Since the summer of 2016, when a campaign to bring a full-fledged medical marijuana market to Florida by constitutional amendment hit high gear, Florida’s licensed cannabis corporations and their executives have given at least $2.5 million in political contributions to state lawmakers and political parties. About two-thirds of that money came in the 22 months after former Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law regulating the state’s newly authorized market in a way that allowed patients to use prescribed oils, creams and vaping products, but limited storefronts and outlawed smoking.
The biggest recipients of cannabis contributions include Florida’s Democratic and Republican parties, which together received $517,000 from Florida’s licensed cannabis corporations and their executives. The past, current and likely future presidents in the Florida Senate, the chamber where legislation more favorable to the industry has typically germinated, received a combined $650,000.
The largest single donation by a cannabis company — $50,000 from a Texas affiliate of Surterra — went to DeSantis in October.
“Their participation goes hand in hand with it being a lawful industry now, or a constitutionally authorized industry, in the state of Florida,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, whose Innovate Florida political committee has received at least $102,000 from marijuana companies and executives since 2016. “But the extent of their influence has yet to be seen.”
So far, the industry’s biggest players — among the half-dozen that got their foot in the door after the state first allowed companies to produce low-THC products in 2014 — have given prolifically.
Surterra, launched by venture capitalists in Atlanta, has donated $1.1 million since the summer of 2016, not including its donations to federal Super PACs. Trulieve, out of North Florida, has donated $564,000. Curaleaf, which grows and processes its cannabis in rural South Miami-Dade, has contributed $469,000.
And in 2019, the three companies have given at least $103,500 to lawmakers’ political committees. All of the donations followed a Jan. 17 press conference DeSantis held in Orlando with marijuana advocate and booster John Morgan to declare that he’d drop the state’s appeals of several lawsuits — including one filed by Morgan — if lawmakers didn’t pass bills by March 15 allowing patients to smoke marijuana.
“What the Florida Legislature has done to implement the people’s will has not been done in accordance with what the amendment envisioned,” DeSantis said at the time. “Whether [patients] have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?”
The biggest recipients of cannabis money include state Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues, who sponsored the 2017 bill banning smoke and then, while receiving $20,000 from marijuana operators in January and February into his Free Markets for Florida political committee, sponsored the 2019 House bill that passed easily last week. A political committee established by House Speaker Jose Oliva, who says he is still personally against smoking medical marijuana, received a $15,000 check on Feb. 26 from Surterra.
Neither Rodrigues nor Oliva, from Miami Lakes, responded to text messages seeking comment. But last month, as Rodrigues’ bill moved through the Health and Human Services committee that he chairs, the Estero lawmaker warned that without legislation to guide smoking marijuana, a federal judge’s ruling striking down Florida’s smoking ban would leave the state with “the law of the wild west.”
Ben Pollara, the political consultant who steered the campaign to bring a full-blown marijuana market to Florida, thinks political contributions have helped the industry make its case. But he doesn’t think ideological opposition has ever been particularly strong even among Republicans, and pointed out that nearly three-quarters of the state supported Amendment 2.
“As it’s become more popular, it’s become something with political upside in terms of voters,” Pollara said. “And when you’ve got votes and campaign contributions, that’s a powerful sauce for moving legislators minds.”
Though the cannabis industry has quickly become a reliable source of donations to state campaigns, it is hardly the most prolific spender. To put the money into context, state records show sugar conglomerate Florida Crystals gave $4.1 million during the 2018 election cycle. Utility giant Florida Power & Light gave nearly $8.5 million.
Nor has legislation necessarily followed donations. Sen. Rob Bradley, among the biggest recipients of cannabis donations, was a sponsor of the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act long before Costa Farms gave his political committee its first $10,000 contribution from a cannabis company in August 2015.
“As is the case with many companies both large and small, we support candidates and elected officials who support our industry,” Curaleaf, the cannabis brand that grew from Costa Farms’ cultivation license, said in a statement.
But the industry — which due to marijuana’s status in federal law as an illegal substance has become a market for individual investors and companies traded on Canadian stock exchanges — has also chosen carefully when it comes to whom they’ve given. The state’s licensed cannabis cultivators appear to have given no money to Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor who said he wanted to legalize recreational marijuana and led in public polls until losing by a hair on election day. On the other hand, DeSantis, who trailed in most public polls before beating Gillum by a hair, received $70,000.
The Democratic politician receiving the most industry money is Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist who won the race for agriculture commissioner and also happens to date Jake Bergmann, who stepped down as CEO of Surterra the day before the election. Fried, who wants to assume oversight of the state’s medical marijuana program from the Department of Health, received at least $58,000.
Galvano, the Senate president, says he doesn’t see a link between the campaign money given to lawmakers and the recent change in position on smoking marijuana. If anything, he thinks marijuana companies would have rather DeSantis simply drop the state’s appeals over the legislation now sitting on the governor’s desk.
“I believe the industry would have preferred the governor just leave the litigation and move on and operate under the broad order that Judge [Karen] Gievers entered. But we, as a Legislature, had sought to at least be given the opportunity to curtail the activities and put in the restrictions,” he said. “I don’t really connect the two other than, like most industries that participate in the process, they want to be relevant and part of it. And that’s where they’re coming from.”