Pot Discussion Sparks Up: Nikki Fried High on Federal Legal Weed Legislation

The City of Miami continues to argue that medical marijuana is still technically illegal under federal law. A U.S. Senate bill could change that.
The City of Miami continues to argue that medical marijuana is still technically illegal under federal law. A U.S. Senate bill could change that. Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced a bill that would finally legalize cannabis at the federal level. Although Florida legalized marijuana for medical use, weed advocates say the state is lagging behind the times, and federal decriminalization would open doors for the cannabis industry in the Sunshine State.

As first reported by Politico, the proposed "Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act" would remove marijuana's Schedule I controlled substance designation and give states the right to legalize the drug as they see fit. Currently, although 37 states have legalized weed in some capacity, the drug remains illegal under federal law. In some cities, this causes confusion over which law should be followed and creates restrictions on people attempting to enter the industry.

The City of Miami, for instance, is currently embroiled in a legal battle with a prospective medical cannabis dispensary owing to precisely that conflict between state and federal law.

The plaintiffs, two companies managed by Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Romie Chaudhauri, argue that the city is wrongly blocking them from opening a dispensary under Florida's medical marijuana statute; the city has passed no laws banning dispensaries but refused to grant the companies a certificate of use to open one. The city's zoning office, under advice from City Attorney Victoria Méndez, contends that it cannot issue permits to sell marijuana, citing the federal prohibition.

The case is pending mediation between the city and the plaintiffs, according to court records.

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried, a proponent of legalized cannabis, says that if passed, Schumer's bill would clear up any legal confusion for local municipalities and allow them to follow state law.

Fried, a candidate for governor in Florida's 2022 midterm elections, says the bill would also open up Florida to less restrictive cannabis laws than those now in effect.

Two attempts at getting a recreational marijuana item on the 2022 ballot failed in Florida this year, each struck down by the Florida Supreme Court because of technical problems with proposed ballot language, which the justices found to mislead the public.

"Florida is very far behind, our medical program is very restrictive," Fried tells New Times. "This may change the culture in our state."

The federal cannabis prohibition also poses financial problems for those looking to start weed businesses in Florida where governments do allow it, according to attorney Dustin Robinson of Mr. Cannabis Law in Fort Lauderdale.

One major hurdle is banking, Robinson says: Most traditional banks are regulated by the federal government and federally insured. Because of this, banks may risk charges of aiding illegal activity if they were to provide bank accounts or loans for cannabis businesses, so many choose to avoid the risk. Cannabis entrepreneurs, therefore, often have to operate with cash or raise large sums of money without loans.

"Banking is a huge pain for these companies. If this were to pass, it would open up banking," Robinson asserts. "It's extremely hard to raise capital because you can’t get a bank loan since it's federally illegal."

The federal draft legislation also includes provisions to expunge federal criminal records for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses for cannabis and to institute grant programs for cities and states that erase criminal records for marijuana-related offenses, in an effort to assist those who have been harmed by the ongoing War on Drugs.

According to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, although white and Black Americans use marijuana at about the same rate, people of color are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for pot possession as white people.

"It's time to end this prohibition and to have economic opportunity for all, to get Black and brown people out of our prisons," Fried says.

Robinson cautions that the legislation could prove to be a double-edged sword, in that a federal framework for legal cannabis could mean more regulation and more stringent requirements for existing cannabis companies.

"Marijuana companies are essentially in a legal no man’s land with no federal oversight right now," the attorney explains. "What’ll happen if it gets legalized from the federal government is that just like any other food or drug product, it will have to comply with FDA law."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates federally approved drugs, medicines, and supplements sold in the U.S. If weed becomes legalized, Robinson predicts, the FDA would have oversight on pot companies and could require them to go through expensive clinical trials before selling their products. And medical cannabis dispensaries that make health claims about their products, such as advertising that they help with sleep or epilepsy, would be required to receive approval from the FDA to make such claims.

Of course, while federal legalization might tighten regulation, Robinson says it would allow more companies to get into the industry and capitalize on a fast-growing market in Florida.

Florida ranked third in the nation for cannabis sales in 2020, behind only Colorado and California — two states where recreational weed is legal.

Schumer and his cosponsors, Democrat Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, will take comments and input on the bill from lawmakers and the public until September 1. The bill needs support from both Democrats and Republicans in order to pass, as well as a signature from President Joe Biden.

Asked by reporters about the proposed bill on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden's position on marijuana hasn't changed: The President has supported decriminalizing pot — meaning the government wouldn't prosecute people for weed possession — but he has not supported legalization.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos