How do you make $30 million go up in smoke?
By gathering nearly 636,000 verified voter signatures to place a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in Florida.
With that benchmark in the bag, the pro-legalization committee Smart & Safe Florida needs less than 256,000 additional signatures to be certified to put recreational weed legalization up for a vote in the 2024 election.
The group is pushing to make Florida the 22nd state where adults can legally blaze cannabis for recreational use.
Despite tougher restrictions on petition-gathering enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature — such as making it illegal to pay unregistered petition circulators — Smart & Safe has made significant progress in just eight months of campaigning.
The fast-track petition gathering would have been impossible without the deep pockets of Trulieve, the largest medical marijuana company in Florida, which has expanded into eight states in recent years. The Quincy, Florida-based, publicly traded firm infused Smart & Safe with $30.5 million via six separate contributions since August. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Trulieve's most recent donation of $5 million hit Smart & Safe's bank account in February.
The company will likely have to kick in several million dollars more if it hopes to secure the 60 percent voter approval necessary for the ballot initiative to pass, according to marijuana activists who have mixed feelings about Trulieve's involvement in the campaign.
The proposed measure doesn't allow for home-growing cannabis, and it would not change the "seed-to-sale" model that requires Florida marijuana companies to handle every facet of cannabis operations, from cultivation to retail sales. In other words, Trulieve and a handful of other well-funded corporate cannabis giants would maintain their dominance in the Florida market.
The ballot initiative would, however, leave the door open for the Florida legislature to change the state's regulatory regime and eliminate the seed-to-sale model, as have many states that legalized recreational marijuana after medical marijuana.
"The legislature may provide for the licensure of entities that are not Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers to acquire, cultivate, possess, process, transfer, transport, sell, and distribute marijuana products and marijuana accessories for personal use by adults," the initiative reads.
Brad Puffenbarger, a Virginia-based marijuana marketing consultant, claims that the measure would still allow the recreational weed market to remain "an extension of the current industry."
"I am all for legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes. But this ballot initiative would entrench the current players and give them a bigger head start," Puffenbarger says.
Trulieve spokeswoman Nicolle Yelland told New Times that company CEO Kim Rivers was not available for an interview. Yelland also declined to respond to questions and criticisms Puffenbarger and other pro-legalization advocates raised.
Two recreational pot legalization initiatives failed in 2021 after the Florida Supreme Court, in separate rulings, found that the proposed ballot language was vague or misleading. The current initiative's language still needs to be reviewed by the high court before it can make it onto the ballot.
If passed, the Smart & Safe measure would amend the Florida constitution to legalize recreational cannabis in a voter referendum-driven process similar to the one used to legalize medical marijuana. Under the proposed amendment, adults aged 21 and older would be able to possess up to three ounces of marijuana and up to five grams of concentrate.
Puffenbarger, a legalization advocacy veteran, knows Florida's medical marijuana regulatory framework well. He was general manager for one of the first dispensaries to open in Florida and headed public relations for some of the companies currently operating in the state, Puffenbarger says.
"It's pretty easy to convince the general public that something is better than nothing," Puffenbarger says. "At the end of the day, the average person doesn't really care who they are buying from. They just want to be able to go buy weed."
Michael Minardi, a Tampa-based attorney who led an unsuccessful campaign in 2021 to legalize homegrown marijuana for adult use, says residents have a fundamental right to cultivate their own cannabis.
"Home cultivation puts the power in the people's hands," Minardi says. "We are still having problems in the state with medical marijuana patients not being able to get access to the products they want and in the quantities they want. If they could grow their own medicine, they should be able to do so."
At least one executive for a Trulieve rival agrees with Minardi.
Lynette French, chief operating officer for Parallel, the parent company of Florida medical marijuana provider Surterra Wellness, wrote a December op-ed for the Tallahassee Democrat suggesting that Smart & Safe's proposed amendment should have included home cultivation.
"[The initiative] does not do nearly enough to expand the industry equitably," French wrote. "Many cannabis advocates, including myself and Surterra leadership, are shifting our energy to pushing for the right for Floridians to grow their cannabis at home."
A Parallel spokesperson did not respond to email requests for comment.
Aside from Parallel, other medical marijuana operators in Florida seem to be fine with Trulieve bankrolling the ballot initiative, Puffenbarger says. No other licensed cannabis company in Florida has contributed to Smart & Safe, finance reports show.
"Even if they are not publicly giving it tacit approval, they are cool with it," Puffenbarger says. "Let's not kid ourselves. This benefits them too."
Other marijuana companies in Florida recognize Trulieve is the largest operator in the state, and don't see a need to help out Smart & Safe, Minardi adds. "[Trulieve] is the one with the money and the one with 120 dispensaries in the state," he says.
Indeed, Trulieve's Rivers recently acknowledged in a March 8 CNBC interview that, if passed, the initiative would go a long way to expand her firm's dominance in Florida.
"We passed the one million raw signatures counted for recreational or adult use to be on the ballot," Rivers said. "We anticipate it will be a $6 billion market with 138 million tourists and 20 million residents. So we are set up very nicely."
Most states that have legalized recreational cannabis allow people to grow it at home. According to a Marijuana Moment report, there have been a few holdouts among recreational weed states, including Washington state, New Jersey, and Illinois, all of which do not permit growing recreational weed at home. Washington has held off on allowing home-growing despite legalizing weed more than 10 years ago.
Warts and all, Minardi is in favor of Smart & Safe's amendment.
"As an advocate and as a criminal defense attorney who is sick and tired of good people getting arrested for cannabis, I am supportive of anything that moves this issue forward," Minardi says. "This is a problem we are still dealing with, even with medical marijuana patients. That would be eliminated with the proposed constitutional amendment."