The freedom to make one’s own choices is central to our nation’s values and the great state of Florida. With cannabis legalization growing in popularity across the country, it’s now time to legalize adult-use cannabis in Florida and give back a choice that has been denied us for almost a century.
Floridians overwhelmingly support cannabis legalization. The latest polling data shows that 70 percent of us believe cannabis should be legal. However, our lawmakers have been slow to respond to the will of the people.
Having sponsored two previous legalization bills, I know that it won’t be easy to win this fight. Still, we must persist. Local and national support for legal cannabis shows us that the best course of action is to work toward decriminalization and, eventually, full legalization.
We have known for 50 years that cannabis poses no real danger to our society. It does not induce violence, nor threaten public health. In 1972, President Richard Nixon received a report from the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. The commission, led by Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, a Republican, declared cannabis not harmful to our society and recommended that marijuana be decriminalized in the United States.
Fifty years and dozens of research studies later, it’s clear the prohibition of cannabis has caused more harm than cannabis itself. The enforcement of nonsensical drug policies has cost taxpayers millions of dollars. This is money that could have been used to fund programs and services for Floridians or kept in their pockets.
Prohibition siphons resources from our police, preventing them from addressing other types of crime. According to the Miami New Times, in 2017, there were over 42,000 marijuana arrests in Florida, many of which were dropped before even going to trial. How much time and manpower have we wasted on enforcing these policies? How many other crimes have gone unsolved because our police departments had to dedicate a portion of their already limited department resources to these arrests?
Cannabis has been poorly legislated, stifling the growth of an industry that could bolster our economy. To power economic growth, we must continue our push toward legalization. It is time for Florida to establish a robust free-market regulatory approach that encompasses both medical and adult-use marijuana.
Since 2017, we have seen our flawed cannabis licensing system create what is essentially a cartel of licensees. Large corporations acquire licenses and resell them at a profit, making tens of millions of dollars. This scheme causes an increase in the cost of medicinal cannabis, often making it difficult or impossible for people to afford. This corruption of the system limits the choices of patients looking for relief from chronic pain or other ailments.
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While I believe that we will fully legalize adult-use cannabis in the near future, it’s imperative to decriminalize marijuana possession right away. Every year, tens of thousands of Floridians are arrested for minor possession charges. Some are sentenced to jail time; others have their charges dropped. Either way, the impact of that arrest will follow them forever. It is a true injustice that there are Florida residents sitting in jail right now on marijuana charges, while companies make millions of dollars operating dispensaries.
Cannabis decriminalization is our key to reducing the harm caused by the enforcement of marijuana prohibition. By removing criminal penalties for cannabis, we can keep people out of jail, and put taxpayer dollars to better use. Decriminalizing cannabis will also provide a direct benefit to public safety by freeing law enforcement to deal with more severe crimes. With less money spent policing cannabis, we can do more to keep our communities safe.
Several municipalities in Florida have already adopted decriminalization policies. Tampa, Orlando, Miami-Dade County, Key West and Sarasota have all passed ordinances to allow for consequences other than incarceration, such as a citation or a fine.
Adult-use cannabis legalization in Florida is not a matter of if, but when. As my term as state senator comes to a close, it is my hope that the people of Florida continue to pressure elected officials at the state and federal levels to adopt legislation that decriminalizes cannabis and legalizes adult-use. Cannabis legalization will usher Florida into a new era of economic development and public safety. Now, we must choose to make it happen.
Jeff Brandes is a St. Petersburg Republican who represents Florida Senate District 24 in Pinellas County.