TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday voted to decriminalize marijuana. Most Democrats supported the bill that would enact that change. Most Republicans did not. The bill is unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
Was Congress’ historic vote an early sign of momentum to legalize marijuana across the United States? Or is was it a low-stakes move on a splashy issue that’s unlikely to go anywhere?
Florida is home to plenty who are interested in the answer.
“We talk all the time on the right about the need to empower people and empower states,” U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said in an impassioned speech on the House floor in support of the bill, the MORE Act. “Right now, the federal policy on cannabis constrains our people. It limits our states.”
Gaetz, who helped author Florida’s very first medical marijuana program as a state representative in 2014, was one of just five Republicans to support the bill. Another Florida Republican, Brian Mast, R-Palm City, also voted for the measure. Mast’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In addition to essentially legalizing marijuana at the federal level, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act establishes a federal tax on cannabis products. That tax money would be set aside in a trust fund for people and businesses that have been affected by the federal war on drugs. A 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite using the drug at a similar rate.
The MORE Act, if signed into law, would also start a formal process for expunging federal marijuana convictions. People serving federal sentences for cannabis-related crimes would get review hearings.
It’s unclear how many Floridians are in federal prison for marijuana-related crimes. But FBI data showed that in 2018, 40 percent of all state and local drug arrests were for marijuana-related offenses. More than 90 percent of those arrests were for possession, according to the Pew Research Center.
As long as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides which bills reach the Senate floor for a vote, the MORE Act is unlikely to become law. Even if a legalization bill did get a vote in the Senate, it wouldn’t get any support from Florida. The Sunshine State’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, do not support the federal legalization of marijuana, according to the senators’ offices.
Despite legalization’s murky federal prospects, State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said Congress’ action on Friday is evidence of an unstoppable surge of momentum for legalization.
“The writing is on the wall, A growing movement of Americans understand how archaic the Federal marijuana laws are,” Brandes wrote in a text message Monday.
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Florida, in some ways, is a microcosm of the uncomfortable tug-of-war between the will of voters and largely conservative lawmakers who don’t favor drug legalization. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved a state Constitutional amendment that greatly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program, which at the time was limited to low-THC cannabis for children with severe epilepsy.
The state implemented that program at a glacial pace at first. It wasn’t until 2019 that the state Legislature legalized medical marijuana in a form for smoking. It wasn’t until this year that the state Department of Health formed rules for edible medical marijuana. In the four years since the medical marijuana amendment passed, regulators have handed out 22 licenses under the program.
Florida House leaders have also attempted multiple times to limit THC — the euphoria-inducing compound in marijuana — in products sold in medical marijuana dispensaries.
Despite the government’s slow movement, Florida dispensaries have nearly 450,000 patients, and the state’s medical marijuana industry is worth around $1 billion.
As the 2020 election season fades into 2022, cannabis advocates plan to try once again to get a Constitutional amendment before voters legalizing recreational marijuana. Make It Legal Florida, a campaign backed by two of the largest medical marijuana companies in the state, is proposing an amendment that would allow “adults 21 years or older to possess, use, purchase, display, and transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and marijuana accessories for personal use for any reason.”
The amendment allows for existing medical marijuana companies to sell the recreational pot, which has drawn criticism from patients who worried about giving more power to the license-holders and would prefer a more open market that could bring down prices.
The group has collected about 555,000 signatures in its effort to get the proposed amendment on the 2022 ballot. It will need a few hundred thousand more to make the ballot. (The total number of required signatures is based on the turnout of the most recent presidential election.)
Earlier this year, Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office argued before the Florida Supreme Court that the language of the proposed amendment is unconstitutional. State Solicitor General Amit Agarwal said the amendment’s language is misleading, because it does not say that marijuana is still illegal federally.
If the MORE Act were to become law, marijuana would no longer be illegal federally. The Florida Supreme Court has not yet issued an opinion on the ballot initiative.
A second, older ballot initiative led by regulation attorney Michael Minardi had less corporate backing and gathered fewer signatures. The ballot language proposed by his group, Sensible Florida, would allow for a more open market and would legalize home-grown medical marijuana. Minardi’s effort failed to garner enough signatures to make it on the 2020 ballot, but it is listed as active for 2022 on the state’s election website.
Brandes, who has introduced state legislation in the past to legalize marijuana, said if the Legislature doesn’t take action, voters will likely pass a 2022 legalization referendum. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center showed that two in three Americans favor legalization.
The leaders of the Florida Legislature do not share the voters’ enthusiasm for the idea. When asked at a November news conference whether legalizing recreational marijuana would get serious consideration during the 2021 legislative session, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, gave a single-word reply.
“No,” Simpson said.
Miami Herald reporter Samantha J. Gross contributed to this story.