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Four States Just Legalized Weed. Is Florida Next?

It has become clear that conservative voters enjoy cannabis as much as liberals do.
It has become clear that conservative voters enjoy cannabis as much as liberals do.

In a nation divided between red and blue, Americans could use a little green to brighten up their days.

In last week's general election, recreational cannabis was legalized in South Dakota, Montana, New Jersey, and Arizona — a mix of red, blue, and purple states. It's the clearest indicator yet that conservative attitudes toward marijuana have changed since former President Ronald Reagan's "Just Say No" days.

Even Mississippi, where residents have voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1972, approved a medical marijuana measure in this year's general election. A whopping 74 percent of voters approved the measure, while 60 percent voted to reelect President Donald Trump.

But Republicans in power are still resisting legalization efforts, starting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was just reelected to his seventh term. He's vowed to never approve a cannabis legalization bill as long as he is in control.

Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is also a prohibitionist, having said he would never support a cannabis legalization effort — despite more than 71 percent of voters approving the state's 2016 medical marijuana amendment and more than 65 percent of Floridians supporting the legalization of adult use of cannabis.

At least one Republican state senator, Jeff Brandes, is fully on board with legalization, but his efforts to pass a bill have so far failed. Brandes also wants to put a stop to the vertical integration business model implemented by the Florida Legislature, which requires cannabis companies to handle all components of production, from seed to sale.

Critics say vertical integration allows a small number of companies to monopolize the industry. Other states, including Colorado, have more of a horizontal model, allowing companies to specialize in certain aspects of the industry, which encourages competition.

A wide-ranging marijuana reform bill sponsored by Brandes earlier this year, along with another legalization bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, were never voted upon.

In Florida, much of the resistance to reform stems from DeSantis, who in the past has claimed that cannabis harms teenagers and young adults because it has a "really detrimental effect to their wellbeing and their maturity" — even though most bills calling for legalization are focused on adult use only.

DeSantis' statements go against the will of the people, says Moriah Barnhart, founder and CEO of CannaMoms, an organization advocating for marijuana reform laws and educating parents of critically ill children about the medicinal benefits of cannabis.

"Whether you agree with cannabis or the War on Drugs, this is a new litmus test for politicians: whether they believe they alone hold the power of God, or that they are here as servants to serve the will of the people," she says.

Barnhart's daughter, Dahlia, was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of two and has responded to cannabis as a treatment better than she did to chemotherapy, which resulted in severe side effects.

Barnhart believes the current wave of cannabis legalization is the beginning of a domino effect that will eventually reach all 50 states, including Florida. As of now, only nine states — Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — consider marijuana to be "fully illegal," meaning they do not even allow CBD usage. (Nebraska and North Carolina have decriminalized small amounts of weed.)

As it has become clear that conservative voters enjoy cannabis as much as liberals, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives intend to vote on a decriminalization bill next month.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019, better known as the MORE Act, was sponsored by California Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect and a former prosecutor who sent people to prison for cannabis in the 1990s. The bill was co-sponsored by Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand and was scheduled to go up for a vote before the election until it was delayed by centrist Democrats who feared it would cost them the election.

Democratic president-elect Joe Biden now says he is all for decriminalization, despite being a prohibitionist for most of his career and drafting legislation that fueled the War on Drugs back in the '80s and '90s.

Neither Biden or Harris has said much about the estimated 40,000 people incarcerated on cannabis offenses across the U.S.

Trump has an opportunity to make history by pardoning federal inmates before leaving office, but he has given no clear sign that he will do so.

"He thought all drugs should be decriminalized before he became a politician," says Sally Peebles, a Florida attorney who has been advocating for marijuana reform laws for almost a decade.

Peebles, who is also licensed in Colorado and Oregon, was part of the legal team that was instrumental in drafting the landmark 2012 bill that led to the legalization of cannabis in Colorado.

In Colorado, cannabis activists and industry leaders worked together along with her law firm to draft a single bill that was funded by cannabis entrepreneurs and activists, as well as philanthropists from around the country.

But in Florida, she says, there was in-fighting this election season between cannabis activists and industry leaders, resulting in three separate amendments, each with different legal language attempting to legalize cannabis for adult use. None made it on the 2020 ballot after failing to obtain the necessary funding (about $10 million for a successful campaign).

"We need to get behind one good comprehensive legalization effort, and that starts with education so that people understand what they are fighting for," she asserts.

Peebles plans to create an educational task force consisting of industry leaders, cannabis activists, entrepreneurs, medical doctors, police officers, concerned citizens, and state and local politicians to draft a legalization amendment in Florida for the 2022 general election.

"That is what we did in Colorado, and that is not happening in Florida," she says. "Instead, we have select interest parties putting together very limited language [on the amendments], and that makes the activists suspect."

Unlike their Florida counterparts, Republican politicians in Colorado supported the state's legalization efforts. One of those backers was Tom Tancredo, a former congressman who ran for president in 2008.

"There is no government program or policy I can think of that has failed in such a unique way as marijuana prohibition," Tancredo wrote in a 2012 column.

In 2014, a medical marijuana amendment made it onto the Florida ballot, but Republican Gov. Jeb Bush came out against it, arguing that it could damage the state's "family-friendly" reputation. The measure ended up receiving 57.62 percent of the vote, shy of the 60 percent needed to pass.

Floridians approved a medical marijuana measure in 2016, but Republican legislators have restricted the industry by placing a limit on the number of cannabis companies allowed to operate in the state. Barnhart, the CannaMoms activist, points out their hypocrisy.

"The backbone of the Republican Party, before the special interests and corruption, was about small government and personal freedom," Barnhart says.

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She's confident that Republicans like Jeff Brandes can help bring the party back to its original values but says DeSantis needs to come to terms with the popularity of legalization.

"DeSantis might have to backtrack on his statement if he is really working for the will of the people and not for his own special interests," Barnhart says.

While it does appear the nation is finally coming to the realization that the government has lied for decades about the dangers of marijuana, one Florida attorney believes more education is needed in conservative parts of Florida to get voters on board with the idea.

"I still think that the base of the Republicans, the more conservative side, is still not up to speed on the issue, which is why some legislatures are less willing to support it," says Ivette Petkovich, a Coral Gables lawyer and legalization advocate.

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