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  1. Opinion

Recreational marijuana could become legal in Florida. How should the governor act? | Adam Goodman

The decision on recreational marijuana will not be up to Gov. Ron DeSantis or the Legislature if they are unable to pass enabling legislation in the 60-day session beginning in January.
A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto. (AP Photo/Canadian Press, Kevin Frayer) [KEVIN FRAYER  |  AP]
A man smokes marijuana recreationally in Toronto. (AP Photo/Canadian Press, Kevin Frayer) [KEVIN FRAYER | AP]
Published Aug. 22, 2019
Updated Aug. 23, 2019

Fueled by fear and rancor, civility has gone AWOL, which in turn has sparked a crusade toward direct democracy that elevates the wants of today over the needs of tomorrow.

In the epicenter of this movement is Florida, America’s melting pot, which may soon be turning to pot in a way that could realign politics for generations to come.

Legal in 11 states, decriminalized in 20, and potentially headed to ballot in a dozen more, fresh surveys show that making recreational marijuana legal – with strict restraints and regulations in play -- is already favored by two out of three Floridians. While this sea change would have seemed wholly unimaginable a few years ago, this tidal wave is not only growing – but rolling in.

A new initiative to legalize cannabis, cheered on by America’s super lawyer John Morgan and a diverse coalition of politicians, is headed for the 2020 Florida ballot that has proven kind to voter-driven ballot measures.

Just last year, Floridians took matters into their own hands by passing 11 separate amendments to the state’s Constitution on everything from property rights to felons’ rights. Cumulatively, the initiatives scored an average of 67 percent of the vote, 7 points above the minimum required for passage – led by a measure toughening lobbying rules for former elected officials. (a shocker, right?).

Now things are about to get interesting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose surging popularity continues to disarm doubters and empower believers, leads via a simple philosophical yardstick: Get it right, and get it done.

He says protect our land and water now. Don’t wait another day to address racial injustice. Take on rising seas by taking our heads out of the sand. No one should need approval to buy lower-cost, life-saving prescription drugs from Canada, or anywhere.

The governor, who prefers action over words, now faces a dilemma. How does he deal with an issue he’s spoken against, but one the public hugely favors, at a moment when presidential politics is moving to full roar here? Could this be an opportunity to grow the party, and broaden his popularity, by heeding where Floridians want to go?

It feels so Shakespearian. “To act or not to act … that is the question.”

For starters, three years ago, 71 percent of Floridians voted for physician-prescribed marijuana. (which is now legal in 33 states, and the District of Columbia).

Secondly, the governor is on the short side of not one but four popular ballot issues Floridians will be talking about (and probably voting on) in 2020. Beyond legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage, banning assault weapons, and allowing for open primaries might all pass if the election were held today.

Now here’s the kicker.

The governor recently tightened laws to make it more difficult to amend Florida’s Constitution. He argued, not without merit, that direct democracy sometimes threatens good democracy when impulse and emotion triumph over consequence and common sense. Cue Brexit here.

All of which begs this question: If legalization is not only inevitable but imminent, should the governor fight to stop it, go neutral, or swiftly move to control it?

The marijuana legalization initiative most likely to succeed (two have been filed) was predicated on lessons learned from states where it’s already legal. Sale of recreational marijuana is limited to those over 21; no use is permitted in public areas; ads directed at minors are prohibited; and all tax revenue (hundreds of millions a year, or more) will be available to fund vital Florida priorities.

The last point is suddenly more relevant, as the state’s top economist warned that state revenue could be $867 million less than previous projections over the next two years.

One thing is abundantly clear. The decision on recreational marijuana will not be the governor’s (or the Legislature’s) to make if they are unable to forge -- and pass – enabling legislation in the 60-day session beginning in January. Short of that, Florida voters will step in and probably make the call on next fall’s ballot. Their verdict could impact a lot of careers (including President Donald Trump’s) in a bellwether state in the ultimate bellwether election.

We live in fast and changing times, when movements meld in the blink of an eye, and opinions swing at the speed of a Tweet. In Florida, long-held beliefs have shifted just as quickly, on everything from offshore drilling and on-shore gaming to same-sex marriage.

Ready or not, cannabis reform is set to occupy center stage, and the audience pining to see the show will be standing-room only.

And just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any more interesting.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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