Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried has always been pro-cannabis, and that isn’t going to change as she gains momentum in politics.
Fried jokes that growing up as a Jewish girl in Miami, obtaining cannabis was easier than alcohol. “I’ve always been pro-cannabis but didn’t really understand the movement [early on],” said Fried.
Her pro-pot policies would take shape in college during the ’90s and early 2000s. She recalls NORML frequently demonstrating at the University of Florida as her first introduction to the movement. In time, she would help bring a national great debates series to campus. Fried remembers the debate, featuring a then-High Times editor and a DEA agent, marking the first substantive cannabis conversation during her time at school.
Legalization remains an issue Nikki Fried and scores of Floridians continue to advocate for today. A liberal working amongst a pool of mostly conservative lawmakers, Fried has established herself as a rising star in the Sunshine State and the national stage without striking a partisan tone. With a pro-pot policy, Fried is not afraid to educate and push back when necessary against opposition to the plant, including its governors—a position many expect her to run for in 2022.
Florida’s Ongoing Cannabis Reform Efforts
Florida represents a prime example of the benefits of ongoing cannabis reform. Since 2014, the state has made incremental progress, first legalizing CBD oil, then expanding its medical program in 2016. In 2019, significant progress came with the inclusion of smokable flower in the program.
Today, the state teeters on the verge of adult use legalization. All the while, regulatory proposals, namely THC caps, continue to pose challenges.
Nikki Fried wasn’t part of the legislature during the initial passage of medical cannabis in 2016 but did participate in the advocacy movement while working as a government consultant. It was then that she heard the rumblings of reform were in the works. However, an issue that seemed to come up all too often was that the nascent cannabis industry lacked people able to blend industry and governmental wisdom to help move the needle on reform. Those initial conversations led Fried to decide she’d be one of the people to pick up the charge in Florida.
In 2018, she would win the general election for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Backed by a policy aimed at lowering medical cannabis barriers, Fried narrowly defeated her opponent in a 50-50 race, with her term beginning in early January 2019. She credits bipartisan cannabis crowds in helping push her to victory. “This is medicine. This is what people voted for,” she said of citizen demands.
She also credits a shared vision for future legislation in helping tip the election her way.
“At the time, we weren’t talking legalization, we were trying to still get medical, but they knew that I was in favor of legalization when the time was right for Florida,” she added.
Convincing Opposing Lawmakers Is An Ongoing Effort For Nikki Fried
Since taking on the role, Nikki Fried has worked alongside mostly conservative lawmakers in the state. While conservatism is not often associated with pro-cannabis agendas, that trend is changing incrementally. In Florida, prominent legislators like Matt Gaetz, a Republican House of Representatives member, support cannabis without coming off the least bit liberal.
While some are coming around on the topic, that hasn’t been the case for previous Governor Rick Scott or the current leader of the state, Ron DeSantis. Advocating for expanded cannabis reform has been daunting under both governors, according to Fried. She noted each opposed reform for differing reasons.
Nikki Fried placed Scott’s opposition to cannabis as part of his wide stance against drugs. Scott’s brother had long suffered from opioid addiction, and as governor, he declared an opioid-based health emergency in Florida in 2017. The following year saw Scott’s opposition to smokable flower pick-up steam.
Personal convictions are not what drives the current governor, according to Fried. “Ron DeSantis is motivated by money,” she said, alleging that Republican donors drive him with their large sums of cash and continued opposition to reform. “I think his motivation is more his ability to raise money,” Fried posited. In 2019, governor DeSantis said legalization would not happen under his governorship despite 65% of Floridians supporting adult use reform.
DeSantis may be the leading force behind the opposition, but he remains far from isolated in the thinking. Lawmakers in Florida and other states have recently begun to champion caps on THC potency. A recently released bipartisan report on marijuana and public health from Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Cornyn called for additional research to better understand the matter. In Florida, the effort to enact THC caps is well underway. On March 9, a party-line vote in the House Professions and Public Health Subcommittee approved a 10% cap on smokable flower while limiting most other products to a 60% potency cap. Fried joins other lawmakers in calling the efforts “reefer madness.”
As part of her opposition efforts, Nikki Fried aims to amplify the concerns of patients with conditions like MS, Crohn’s, Lou Gherig’s and other debilitating conditions that often require higher doses of THC to experience symptom relief. Fried forecasted that, if approved, the cap would likely force many patients to buy larger amounts of medicine, drive up monthly costs, or shift to the illicit market, where untested products could cause conflicts for patients.
While contending with caps, she says tired tropes remain in place as well, including the notion that cannabis is a gateway drug or can lead to overdoses.
Is A Pro-Cannabis Governor In The Cards?
The people want cannabis, and it could help Florida recover from the pandemic, stated Fried. “This really is the greatest unifying issue of our generation, and it also can help protect our economy, especially during COVID,” she elaborated. In August 2020, Florida had reportedly lost $2.1 billion in revenue due to the pandemic.
Her cannabis stance is one of many reasons that Fried is considered a possible contender to DeSantis in 2022. Those speculating next steps point towards Fried’s recent efforts, including a video condemning the governor’s pandemic response, as signs of her impending announcement.
Nikki Fried wouldn’t announce her candidacy when speaking with High Times. However, she did say her team is looking at its options. She highlighted a 2018 campaign talking point comparing the overregulation of cannabis to the under-regulation of guns in the state, saying the issue remains a concern in 2021. With unemployment also posing concerns, Fried believes free and open hemp and marijuana markets could help right the state’s woes. She believes that these causes must be part of the platform for whomever the candidate ends up being.
A March 2021 survey from polling firm Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy currently projects DeSantis as the winner over Fried at a 51%-42% margin.