A marijuana lobbyist became the only statewide Democrat sworn into office. Smoking medical marijuana became legal in Florida. A new hemp program gave farmers statewide the optimism for a new cash crop. On the whole, 2019 proved to be a monumental year for cannabis in the state.
In February, The state hired its first “cannabis czar,” in August the Miami-Dade State Attorney announced it will no longer prosecute minor marijuana cases and in October, two associates of Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s sought pot licenses in the state.
The New Year brings a whole new list of things to watch in the cannabis space, like a push to let 2020 voters decide to allow recreational marijuana in the state, a list of bills that could reform the Florida marijuana industry and a state Supreme Court decision that could be pivotal in shaping the marijuana licensing system for years to come.
As the state prepares for another eventful year in the cannabis space, here’s a look back at some of the year’s biggest stories in Florida cannabis and a look ahead of what’s to come.
After grueling machine and manual recounts for the razor-thin race for Agriculture Commissioner, Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist, emerged victorious in the November 2018 race to beat Matt Caldwell by just 6,753 votes for the post vacated by term-limited Adam Putnam.
In January, she was sworn in as the first statewide candidate to have run on a platform heavily predicated on cannabis, especially expanded access to medical marijuana and a new state hemp program. Medical marijuana advocates and the greater cannabis community applauded her win.
“These were things that transcend Democrats, independents and Republicans,” Fried told the Miami Herald after her win. “I made them believe that I want to fix things and make things better.”
Her campaign also attracted high-profile endorsements and speaking engagements after her campaign accounts were twice shut down by banks because of donations tied to the medical marijuana industry.
Later in January, newly-inaugurated Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made waves when he called on lawmakers to change Florida law to allow smokable medical marijuana.
In 2016, 71% of Florida voters opted to legalize medical marijuana on a constitutional amendment. The 2017 bill signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form but made it illegal to smoke. Scott appealed a court decision that ruled the limitation unconstitutional.
Scott’s outgoing administration made the argument to ban smoking to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee the week prior, as DeSantis was being sworn into office.
DeSantis said in January that if the Legislature didn’t pass a bill to amend the law by March, he would drop the state’s appeal passed down to the new governor from the Scott administration.
“Whether they [patients] have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?” DeSantis said when he made the announcement in Orlando. “I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved. I don’t think this law is up to snuff.”
Keeping to her campaign promises, Fried hired Nashville consultant and banker Holly Bell to become the department’s first Director of Cannabis.
Bell, who has consulted as a banking expert for cannabis businesses across the country since 2015, has taken the lead on getting the state’s new hemp program off the ground. Tennessee has its own state hemp program, with which Bell said she was very familiar.
“I really came with no agenda other than to implement a vision that the commissioner had and help the people of Florida,” Bell said in an interview shortly after she was hired.
Per the instructions handed down from DeSantis in January, the Legislature passed a bill quietly signed into law in mid-March that makes smoking marijuana a legal method of medicating for Florida patients.
The bill was largely inspired by Cathy Jordan, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and relies on smoking marijuana to dry out her mouth and clear phlegm that accumulates in her lungs. Jordan was among those who sued the state for banning smoking as a way of using medical marijuana.
“In her quiet voice, she would advocate for smokable medical cannabis,” bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “As Floridians, even those who barely have a voice in this process can be heard, recognized and respected. This legislation honors that in a way that is responsible.”
The bill also establishes a research consortium, allows products like bongs and rolling papers to be purchased and requires a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician for non-terminal patients under age 18.
In April, an appeals court ruled that 77-year-old Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner did not have the legal right to grow his own medical marijuana to combat lung cancer.
The decision overturned a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, who gave Redner the green light to grow marijuana for juicing purposes. Redner’s attorneys argued that because he is a qualified patient, he has the right to use the marijuana he grows to treat his stage 4 lung cancer.
The Department of Health, the entity that administers the state’s medical marijuana program, disagreed.
In late May, the Florida Supreme Court decided it would not hear the case.
On the penultimate day of the 2019 legislative session, the Legislature approved a bill that allows the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a state hemp program.
The push for a hemp program in Florida had been largely bipartisan and played into a national trend of following what some call the “green rush” of financial opportunity for farmers and manufacturers across the state.
Following the passage of the 2014 federal farm bill, hemp growing became allowed under certain circumstances by research institutions and state departments of agriculture. The 2018 farm bill removed prohibitions on industrial hemp and authorized states to create hemp programs beyond the university research setting.
In accordance with the bill, the Florida Department of Agriculture submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and applied for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp this past summer. While Bell and others in the Department of Agriculture hoped to get seeds in the ground before the year’s end, no licenses have been issued.
Spurred by the new state law that legalized possession of hemp, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office announced it will no longer prosecute minor marijuana cases.
For amounts large enough for felony charges, police will now be required to get lab tests to confirm that marijuana is, well, actually marijuana. The decision highlights the increasing complications for law enforcement in states where recreational marijuana remains illegal, but hemp is now allowed.
“Because hemp and cannabis both come from the same plant, they look, smell and feel the same,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote in explaining the decision. “There is no way to visually or microscopically distinguish hemp from marijuana.”
For the first time in the history of Congress, a standalone marijuana bill was passed off the House floor. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would prohibit regulators from punishing banks that serve cannabis companies and clients.
The bill, sponsored by Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter, also prohibits federal regulators from terminating or limiting deposit insurance, discouraging banks from offering financial services to cannabis or hemp businesses and bars them from incentivizing or encouraging a bank to close accounts solely because a person is affiliated with a cannabis or hemp business.
Banks have been hesitant to service the medical cannabis industry because it’s still illegal on the federal level.
The bill has not yet been heard in the Senate.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two South Florida businessmen indicted in October on charges they illegally funneled foreign money into U.S. politics in an attempt to purchase influence in Washington and cannabis licenses in multiple U.S. states, also pursued entry into Florida’s medical marijuana industry.
As recently as May, Parnas and Fruman were speaking to attorneys in Florida’s marijuana industry about purchasing a stake in any one of the 22 companies licensed by the state to grow marijuana. But their plan appeared to have been unsuccessful due to an inability to prove that they had the cash.
After smokable medical marijuana became legal in March, medical marijuana treatment centers in Florida have dispensed 20,252 ounces of the whole flower drug, and the companies are feeling the demand of the nearly 300,000 qualified patients.
Some patients say they have a hard time finding the product in stores, and have to drive long distances to find a dispensary that carries their preferred medicine.
It can be around 10 months from the time a company wants to expand its growing operation to the time products can hit the shelves, making it tricky to keep up with customer needs.
A typical growing facility for medical marijuana can take up to six months to build, and the actual growing of the plants takes another four or five months, depending on the condition.
As the February deadline for submitting 766,200 verified signatures quickly approached, organizers of the Regulate Florida ballot initiative faced a harsh truth: They would not likely gather enough signatures in time to make it onto the 2020 ballot.
The initiative, which advocated for not only recreational use of marijuana but also the right to grow the plant at home, had collected only 92,540 valid signatures as of Dec. 17.
“The sad reality is that we are not going to be able to meet [the February] deadline,” chairman Michael Minardi wrote to supporters.
With 2020 on the horizon, all eyes are on new legislation and a marijuana industry-backed ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
There are a handful of cannabis-related bills filed ahead of the 2020 session, which starts in January. Notable bills aim to:
▪ Waive the $75 medical card fee for patients who are veterans.
▪ Eliminate the vertically-integrated business model in Florida’s medical marijuana law and undo the cap on the number of licenses. The current model maintains that a license holder must grow, process, test and sell their product without any subcontractors or middle men.
▪ Prohibit marijuana retail facilities from producing their own products, as they are currently required to do.
▪ Authorize patients to have more than one caretaker to administer medicine. For example, a school nurse could administer the medicine at school instead of a parent coming to the school to treat their child.
▪ Add sickle cell disease to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use.
▪ Allow for the expunging and sealing of records for cannabis possession charges.
Though the Regulate Florida initiative has bowed out of the race for the 2020 ballot, the industry-backed Make it Legal Florida initiative is still gathering signatures ahead of the impending February deadline.
Make it Legal Florida is chaired by Nick Hansen, a lobbyist for a California-based medical marijuana chain, MedMen, and former adviser to Brandes, the Republican state senator from St. Petersburg.
The language says adults aged 21 or older would be able to buy pot for recreational use from dispensaries that currently sell medical marijuana.
The initiative has collected 211,956 valid signatures of the 766,200 needed by February to make it onto the ballot, and has raised $3.7 million in campaign contributions, mostly from MedMen and Parallel (which does business in Florida as Surterra).
The language was sent to the state Supreme Court for approval on December 19. The next day Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a petition with the court, opposing the initiative.
In the new year, the Florida Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in a case that could change the entire medical marijuana licensing structure in Florida.
In dispute is the part of the state’s marijuana laws that address “vertical integration,” or a system in which a limited number of companies that receive medical marijuana licenses must grow, process, test and distribute products without other companies playing different roles.
In the case, the Florida House holds that the current vertically integrated structure helps keep marijuana out of the black market or in the hands of minors. The House is asking the Supreme Court to throw out a July ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that said vertical integration conflicted with a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The arguments came in a long-running lawsuit filed by the Tampa-based firm Florigrown, which unsuccessfully applied for a medical marijuana license in the state.