Florida firm Bankrolls drive to legalize Recreational Marijuana
TALLAHASSEE - Florida-based Trulieve, one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana companies, has kickstarted a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in the Sunshine State.
The company has contributed $10 million to date to the Smart & Safe Florida campaign to get a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot, and so far is its sole contributor. The organization already has spent $6.5 million to start collecting the nearly 900,000 signatures needed to bring the citizen initiative to a vote.
Florida has “22 million residents and 130 million tourists a year, so it’s a huge market opportunity. And we’re very, very bullish on the prospect of this initiative,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers said during her keynote address on Sept. 14 at the Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference in Chicago.
“Trulieve has consistently supported initiatives to give Floridians expanded access to safe cannabis products,” Trulieve spokesman Steve Vancore said. “Our goal has been, since day one, to provide high-quality safe cannabis products, and this fits in squarely with that goal.”
Trulieve was the first homegrown medical marijuana company to open a dispensary in Florida and now holds the lion’s share of the state market, at an estimated 50%. It stepped up with the seed money, expecting other medical marijuana licensees to contribute to the campaign, Vancore said.
“If it sees its way to the ballot, I think it passes overwhelmingly,” said Ben Pollara, a political consultant and medical marijuana activist who helped get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that successfully legalized full-potency marijuana for patients who met certain qualifications.
Yet, it’s unclear whether the conservative Florida Supreme Court will green light it as state law requires, Pollara said.
Two most recent efforts to get recreational marijuana use on the ballot failed their Supreme Court reviews in 2021. In one case, the court determined the ballot summary misled voters into believing that it would limit the use of marijuana, while the language of the other amendment would make them think there would be no criminal repercussions for using or possessing pot.
The Safe & Smart amendment’s ballot summary clearly states that it applies only to Florida law and “does not change, or immunize violations of, federal law.”
Rivers said the language of the Safe & Smart referendum has been thoroughly vetted and that she believes it will pass judicial review.
“We are certainly excited and optimistic and believe 2024 is the right time,” Rivers said.
State law requires 222,898 signatures to trigger a judicial review, and 891,589 to get on the ballot.
The campaign was officially launched in August, with the Bellamy Brothers country music act lending its support. David Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers is the campaign’s chairman.
The amendment, if approved, would allow people 21 and older to “possess, purchase, or use marijuana products and marijuana accessories for non-medical personal consumption by smoking, ingestion, or otherwise.”
But it would not legalize homegrown pot for recreational use.
More significantly, the ballot amendment would amend the current law for the 22 licensed Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers in Florida and other state-licensed entities to grow, manufacture and sell recreational marijuana products and let the state set possession limits for personal use.
That would greatly expand the industry, Pollara said.
Florida’s $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry already is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2025, industry analysts said. Adding recreational marijuana would grow the industry by an extra $3.8 billion a year, Florida economists predicted in a 2019 study, raising $190 million a year in tax revenue.
Nationally, recreational marijuana is a $32 billion industry that has brought in close to $4 billion in tax revenue for the 19 states that have legalized it. Four state legislatures passed adult use laws in 2021, and Rhode Island joined the club this year. At least two states have recreational marijuana on their ballots this year.
Florida first legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2014 with passage of the Compassionate Use Act, but it only permitted the low-dose strain known as “Charlotte’s Web.”
Two years later, voters overwhelmingly passed the constitutional amendment backed mostly by Orlando attorney John Morgan that allowed people to buy medical marijuana with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in pot.
All along, opponents warned that medical marijuana was just the first step in outright legalization.
And while medical marijuana is popular with Floridians, state lawmakers have tried to limit the potency of THC in medical marijuana and restrict the amount that can be sold to patients.
Even though he quashed a potential ban on smokable medical marijuana in 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis has also said he would not allow the legalization of cannabis while he is governor.
“What I don’t like about it is if you go to some of these places that have done it, the stench when you’re out there, I mean, it smells so putrid,” he recently told reporters. “I want people to be able to breathe freely.”
The reluctance of lawmakers and the governor, if he wins reelection, could mean trouble for the amendment, Pollara said.
“No question the public opinion on marijuana is strong,” Pollara said, “but the political headwinds in Florida are not great.”
A recent Department of Health rule recently came out placing such a limit on how much medical marijuana users can buy, and it has delayed granting the additional 22 additional licenses they are required to grant under state law based on the number of users in the patient registry. As of this week, that number reached over 751,000.
“A lot has changed since the medical initiative was first proposed nearly a decade ago,” Vancore said. “Today nearly 150 million Americans enjoy the freedom and access to safe legal cannabis products.
A University of North Florida poll in February showed 76 % of Florida voters either strongly or somewhat favor legalization.
Recent legislation restricting the ability to raise money and pay petition gatherers will have an impact, Vancore said. One law prohibits petition gatherers from being paid by the signature, and the other puts a $3,000 cap on individual contributions to citizen initiative campaigns.
“The array of laws impacting signature gathering has had two effects. The first is to raise the cost, and the second is to slow down the process,” Vancore said. “We know that the Safe and Smart campaign is well equipped to meet these requirements and reach the goals of securing almost 900,000 signatures.”