Just days after Florida lawmakers introduced bipartisan bills to honor out-of-state medical marijuana patients, Democrats in the House are upping the legislative ante with a pair of bills to legalize and tax adult-use. Given how much resistance even medical marijuana bills have faced in the Florida legislature, full legalization faces long odds. But state representatives Michael Grieco (D-Miami Beach) and Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) want their bills to keep the conversation around legalization active.
Florida Democrats Opt for More Challenging Path to Legalization
Like many other states, Florida lets voters participate in the lawmaking process through ballot referendums. These up or down votes have been the primary vehicle through which states have passed laws legalizing cannabis. Voters approve a measure, and lawmakers tweak and implement it. In states where voters cannot put measures on the ballot, bills to legalize cannabis have had to come from lawmakers themselves. Vermont is a key example. It was the first state that legalized adult-use marijuana through the legislative process.
In Florida, voters have the ability to put measures on the ballot. But their last attempt at legalizing cannabis, The Florida Cannabis Legalization Initiative of 2018, failed to garner enough signatures to make in on the ballot. As a result, Democratic lawmakers who support legalization decided to move forward on their own. While it’s the more challenging path to legalization, Democrats’ legislative initiative can move more quickly.
That legislative initiative involves two bills, HB 1117 and HB 1119. The first bill, 1117, would legalize cannabis for adults 21 and up. It would cap purchase limits to 2.5 ounces of flower and restrict consumption to private residences. But HB 1119 also aims to ensure the retail industry avoids the restrictions Florida has imposed on its medical industry. This includes exempting retail businesses from the controversial “vertical integration” model. Vertical integration requires the state’s medical marijuana companies to grow, process, market and sell their own products.
The second bill, 1119, sets up a tax framework to generate revenue for the state. Specifically, growers would have to pay a $50 per ounce excise tax for any cannabis they sell or transfer. But the bill would also cap the already high application for cannabis business licenses at $5,000.
Advocates Want to Prioritize Improvements to Florida’s Medical Marijuana Program
Advocates of marijuana policy reform in Florida are applauding Reps. Grieco and Smith’s efforts to push legalization forward. But they’re less enthusiastic about the particulars of the two bills. Gary Stein, of Clarity PAC, criticized HB 1119’s excise tax as “far too high.” Stein also pointed out the problematic use of the misnomer “recreational marijuana.”
While acknowledging that the bill is a “good legislative start,” Stein stressed the need to fix the states medical program. “Other states have hurt their med programs by rushing to adult use, and we need to be cautious that it doesn’t happen here.”
Smith and Grieco’s priorities, however, have led them to focus elsewhere, on revenue maximization. “Rep. Smith and I worked tirelessly to try to get the bill language perfect to ensure access, protect local decisions making and create a revenue-generating structure for the state,” Grieco said.
But there are those who question whether Grieco’s legalization push is on behalf of his constituents or powerful players in the cannabis industry. In 2017, Grieco bowed-out of a Miami Beach mayoral bid after coming under state investigation for unlawful campaign contributions. According the Miami New Times, Grieco took $20,000 from marijuana entrepreneurs Rustin and Evan Kluge through a PAC called People for Better Leaders.
Rep. Smith, a member of the House Health Quality Subcommittee, has been a vocal proponent of legalization. He said he signed on the Rep. Grieco’s bills due to his position that criminalizing adult cannabis use doesn’t make sense. Rep. Smith expects a tough legislative route to legalization, but says that’s no reason to stop advocating. Both lawmakers want to keep the momentum moving should voters get the issue on the ballot later this year.