TALLAHASSEE — In her run for governor, Nikki Fried is focusing on the issue she’s best known for: marijuana.
The Democratic agriculture commissioner wants to see weed legalized for recreational use. She wants to overhaul the regulations imposed on medical marijuana companies. She’s seeking to expunge the criminal records of those convicted with nonviolent cannabis offenses.
On Wednesday, Fried’s advocacy even pushed her into a bit of intra-party warfare, when she announced she would sue President Joe Biden’s administration over a federal rule restricting medical marijuana users from buying guns or keeping a concealed-carry permit.
Since she entered the political fray in 2018, Fried has made marijuana reform a key focus.
But Fried’s track record as the only statewide elected Democrat shows the limits of her own marijuana activism. The governor’s office, not the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, ultimately oversees Florida’s medical marijuana program. Even if she wins the governor’s mansion, marijuana policy will largely be left to the Florida Legislature. That body is likely to be controlled by cannabis-skeptical Republicans for the foreseeable future.
Some of the things she’s pushed for have since become state policy, although her role in making them happen has not always been clear cut: Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped the state fight against smokable medical cannabis in 2019. The Legislature, with the backing of Fried’s office, allowed farmers to grow and sell hemp that same year.
The marijuana industry has also posed thorny issues for Fried as a political candidate. Fried’s relationship with marijuana entrepreneur Jake Bergmann — and other potential conflicts of interest in the cannabis space — could weigh down her path to the state’s highest office.
Fried’s gubernatorial campaign confirmed that Bergmann and Fried are no longer together — they were engaged to be married. But last year, Fried was dogged by questions about Bergmann’s ties to the industry, her finances and how some of her office’s regulatory moves may have affected people close to her.
Many in the marijuana field are fans of Fried. But even they acknowledge her advocacy can only be so effective in Republican-dominated Florida.
“I think as far as her authority over cannabis-related issues, she’s done a great job,” said Josephine Cannella-Krehl, a social worker who was appointed by Fried to serve on the agriculture department’s medical cannabis advisory committee. “Her authority is very limited.”
Fried got a chance early in her term as agriculture commissioner to weigh in on the cannabis industry. In 2019, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan measure legalizing hemp — a cannabis plant that’s been stripped of the vast majority of its psychoactive component.
Fried’s office lobbied heavily for the bill, working to convince skeptical legislators that there’s a difference between the high-inducing marijuana and hemp, which can be used to make dozens of products, including Cannabidiol (CBD) and various ropes and fabrics.
“The hemp bill was a true bipartisan effort to make Florida a leader in that emerging space,” wrote former Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, in a text message. He was the bill’s sponsor.
Once DeSantis signed the bill, it was up to Fried’s office to begin writing rules around the hemp program.
She quickly decided she wanted to make it easier to get into the hemp business than the state’s medical cannabis industry, which requires business owners to control every aspect of production from farming to sale — a model known as vertical integration. That regulatory bar has made it all but impossible for anyone but the wealthiest investors to get into the field. Today, just 22 firms are licensed as Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers.
Fried’s office opted to set up rules to make the hemp program accessible to essentially any business owner. There is no limit on the number of hemp permits that can be given out. Growers simply have to pass a background check.
Fried’s department says the hemp industry, which turns two years old next week, created $370 million in economic impact during its first year. Nearly 800 hemp cultivation licenses have been handed out across Florida. All but three Florida counties have hemp growing in them, the department says.
“We are known across the entire country as the gold standard,” Fried said in an interview last week.
Conflicts of interest?
Fried’s longstanding ties to the cannabis industry have gotten her into political trouble, too.
She began her work in cannabis in 2015, adding it to the portfolio of her one-person lobbying outfit, Igniting Florida.
Fried never quite extricated herself from the industry she seeks to regulate as governor.
Financial disclosures Fried filed last year — nearly two months late — show she has a $130,000 stake in Harvest, a medical marijuana company that was bought by Trulieve in October. That means that unless she sells her stake, Fried is invested in Trulieve, the state’s largest medical marijuana operator. (Her campaign has said she plans to sell her stake if she wins the governor’s race.)
The drama around Fried’s financial disclosure led to a series of critical headlines for the candidate last year. The Republican Governor’s Association called her an “incompetent mess.”
Her connections to Bergmann also raised ethical issues. In 2020, Bergmann, who helped found medical marijuana company Surterra Wellness, transferred the ownership of a Leon County home the two shared to Fried. (Fried pays the mortgage on the house, according to her campaign.) Surterra, which is now known as Parallel, is today the fifth-largest medical marijuana company in the state.
Although Bergmann left Surterra in 2018, he remained a cannabis entrepreneur with numerous investments in Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel, at least one of the firms he invested in, One Hemp Brands LLC, was permitted by Fried’s department to extract hemp.
Fried’s campaign said Bergmann’s standing in the industry had “zero” to do with the decisions made at the Department of Agriculture. Fried’s office noted that in 2020, she delegated policy decisions over individual hemp businesses to a deputy chief of staff — a longtime career staffer who had served in both Republican and Democratic-led administrations.
When asked whether she is able to effectively regulate the cannabis industry because of her personal ties, Fried said her track record proved she is.
“Look at the hemp industry,” Fried said. “I know people all in the hemp industry and I did exactly what I promised: created an open marketplace where everybody has equal opportunity to succeed. And it’s working.”