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Florida Republican Lawmaker Speaks On His Revamped Marijuana Legislation

Close up look at marijuana plant growing in Gardena, CA
Richard Vogel, File
AP Photo

A Republican lawmaker wants to change Florida’s medical marijuana system as well as legalize the drug for adults. 

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) hasn’t been shy in the past when it comes to criticizing the current system and now wants to dismantle it.

When lawmakers created the framework for the medical marijuana system, they made it vertical. That means companies that got licenses would handle everything from growing to selling and transportation. A small number of licenses were available, and Brandes says some companies took advantage.

"We have people who are essentially hoarding licenses," Brandes says. "They got these licenses, but they had no intention of growing, processing, or selling to the retail market. But now they are trying to sell their market for sometimes $40 million."

Florigrown, a group that didn’t receive a license, challenged the framework in the courts. Judges ruled the current system unconstitutional. One judge called it an “unlawful vertically-integrated oligopoly.” However, an appeal put a pause on plans to create a new system.

This session, Brandes wants to take the issue back from the courts by filing a bill that would revamp Florida’s marijuana rules. "This bill looks to do away with vertical integration and do away with the cartel system that exist in Florida," Brandes explains. 

Before the 2019 session, Governor Ron DeSantis called for the legislature to address a piece of the law that restricted patients' access to smokable marijuana. The issue stemmed from the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing for medical marijuana. The legislature restricted access to smokable forms of the drug, but DeSantis says the amendment never called for that limitation. He also raised concerns about the vertical system.

“I look at how some of this was created where they created a cartel essentially. (I) don’t know that the amendment necessarily prohibits that, but that is not good policy. So I would like them to address that as well," DeSantis said.

This bill looks to do away with the cartel system in Florida. ~Sen. Jeff Brandes

Lawmakers did make a change that allows smokable marijuana, but the so-called “cartel” issue remains. Brandes hopes to fix that.

"If you want to be in the medical marijuana business, you basically have to get a license which costs $40 million," Brandes says. "Then you have to also set up a grow, a processing facility and retail facilities in order to distribute your product, and so you need to have another $40 million in order to just be in the business. Our bill allows small business owners to be in the business. If you want to just own a retail facility, it allows you to just own a retail facility and buy from a variety of different producers."

"Another major component of this bill is if you have a previous possession charge, this will allow you to go to the court to get that expunged from your record. We think that that’s a major provision that should not be overlooked," Brandes says. "There are thousands of people in Florida with simple possession charges for marijuana."

Brandes’ bill comes as Make It Legal Florida, a group behind a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, dropped a push to get its proposal on the 2020 ballot. It was one of two groups attempting to put a measure legalizing marijuana to a vote this year.

Several polls show Florida voters support legalization. "To me, this is a matter of when, not if," Brandes says. "We believe that the whole trajectory in the country and in the state of Florida is moving towards adult use."

A similar bill was filed in the House by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Winter Park).