Florida’s other big November vote: will the state legalize weed?

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Florida’s other big November vote: will the state legalize weed?

The push to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida ramped up this week. Campaigners bankrolled by dominant players in the cannabis and CBD marketplace launched a $5m advertising blitz in support of a ballot measure in November’s election that has so far been overshadowed by publicity for the one on abortion rights.

Four commercials featuring retired military personnel, business owners, law enforcement officers and regular citizens began appearing on television, radio and the internet, leaning in heavily to themes campaigners believe will appeal to the 60% of voters amendment 3 needs to pass.

And while the financial backers of the Smart & Safe Florida political advocacy committee, most prominently Trulieve, a major operator of marijuana dispensaries, stand to harvest far greater profits if the Vote Yes campaign is successful, there is little to no organized resistance.

Florida’s Republican party passed a resolution opposing it, and the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, says he is concerned about the smell. But outside of that, nobody has yet set up any group or campaign to counter the tens of millions of dollars and corporate might invested by Trulieve and its allies, a coalition of other invested industry partners.

“Nobody is selling ‘no’. They don’t make any money selling no,” said John Michael Pierobon, vice-chair of the Tobacco Free Partnership of Broward county.

“The big wealth transfer is from the poor people that are going to be smoking pot, because the temptation is there, to the rich people that own the pot companies. It’s all about corporate greed.”

Pierobon said it was difficult to effectively counter the arguments promoted by Smart & Safe Florida with such a “lopsided” platform.

hands displaying a ground up green herb
A Florida financial impact analysis predicts an almost $200m annual windfall. Photograph: Miami Herald/TNS

“I’m just a private citizen. I volunteer with these organizations, who are really just community groups,” he said.

“I don’t have the Republican party behind me, I don’t have the Democratic party, I don’t have anybody, so I just have to speak and hopefully influence people to make informed decisions.”

Pierobon takes issue with many of the assertions put forward by the yes campaigners. In one of their advertisements, called Freedom, a retired army colonel and Vietnam war veteran heralds the “billions of dollars” that would be raised in revenue and sales taxes, and money and time suddenly available to law enforcement “to focus on serious crime”.

A Florida financial impact analysis predicts an almost $200m annual windfall.

“In Colorado, they’re regretting they passed it because it actually cost them more money than they thought,” Pierobon said. “They talk about money for law enforcement, well we know there are more car fatalities in states that have legalized marijuana, they’re the hidden costs. It costs money to come out to more fatal car crashes, investigate them and write the reports.”

Before producing the advertisements, Smart & Safe Florida had already spent substantial funds on its arguments to get the amendment on the ballot in the first place. Its adoption was opposed at the Florida supreme court by the Republican state attorney general, Ashley Moody, in the same way as amendment 4, the abortion measure. Moody lost both challenges.

“I don’t think this is a partisan issue, and I don’t think the decision will be made by politicians at party meetings,” Morgan Hill, spokesperson for Smart & Safe Florida, said, referring to the Florida Republican party’s declaration of opposition.

“It’ll be made by the voters at the ballot box in November, and I think a really good example of how bipartisan marijuana is, as an issue in the state of Florida, is 2016, when medical marijuana was on the ballot that passed with 71.3% support.”

Hill also said that the “way medical marijuana was both implemented and regulated” in Florida “is a really good roadmap”.

“Other states that haven’t had medical [marijuana] had a little bit of a harder time when it comes to the implementation process [of recreational marijuana]. We kind of already have a state program set up for that,” Hill added.

The proposed Florida amendment would make it the 26th state to approve marijuana for recreational use, and seeks to place production and distribution solely in the hands of professional, regulated operators such as Trulieve, and their networks. Growing marijuana independently would still be illegal, and individuals could possess no more than three ounces for personal use.

As in almost all other states where voters said yes, campaigners are resting heavily on “safety” arguments, including how legalization will lead to a reduction or elimination of street drugs, often produced by cartels and laced potentially with fentanyl or other toxins.

man behind a stall with lots of marijuana in different boxes
An exhibitor sells cannabis products at his booth at the Cannabis & Psychedelic Expo in Miami, Florida, on 5 February 2022. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

“The state’s own economic analysis shows 1.8 million people in Florida are accessing marijuana on the illicit market, more than double those who are getting it from medical marijuana cards,” Hill said.

“When that many people are accessing a product in a market that’s not regulated, that’s really dangerous, especially when we know that market is often tainted.”

Polling so far, all conducted before this week’s advert drop, indicates that voters’ minds are far from made up. Florida Atlantic University found last month that only 47% of voters said they would vote yes, with another 18% undecided.

Also unknown is what effect this week’s proposal by the justice department to reclassify marijuana from a schedule I drug, the same level as heroin, to a schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act will have on the process in Florida. Joe Biden said he was committed to “reversing longstanding inequities”, but the move would not legalize marijuana nationally or wrest control from states’ jurisdiction.

The political analyst Jeff Brandes, a Republican former state senator and founder of the Florida Policy Project, said he expected the amendment would pass.

“You’re going to see the Republicans coming out, saying, ‘don’t turn Florida into Colorado or other states’, but it’s largely tempered because so many states have now implemented adult use of marijuana, and I can’t see that argument winning today,” he said.

“Most Republicans, quietly and once they’re able to vote their own mind in the privacy of the voting booth, will vote to support it.”

Brandes also said the measure had, understandably, taken a back seat to the other big policy amendment in November’s ballot.

“The Republican party cares much more about the abortion issue than it does about the marijuana issue,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s not a question of if Florida’s going to have adult use, it’s a question of when. In the meantime, we can either perpetuate the illegal drug cartels and the black market, or we can bring people into the light of day and create a legal pathway for people to make adult decisions.”

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