A Conversation with the Florida Cabinet’s Medical Cannabis Champion

 

Going into the midterm elections, Democrats were hopeful and even bullish for their candidates’ prospects in Florida. Instead, as Florida’s new Republican governor and other statewide officeholders were sworn in Tuesday, just one Democrat managed to join their ranks: Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Fried’s ability to capture an office held by the GOP since 2001 has drawn attention to her campaign, in which she zeroed in on problems with Florida’s medical cannabis program. And, Fried did what higher profile, better-funded Democrats couldn’t in winning the statewide cabinet position, overcoming her Republican opponent by 6,753 votes, or .08 percent, after a recount.

Fried likely benefited from a Republican legislature and previous governor who have produced a medical cannabis system that has frustrated the industry and patients alike. The state’s pained history with medical cannabis began after a successful 2016 ballot initiative enshrined medical cannabis in the state’s constitution. Then, the legislature, with the administration of previous Governor Rick Scott, passed a controversial law and regulations that banned smokable cannabis and added strict caps to the number of available business licenses. Those moves have stymied the industry from taking off, prompting accusations that lawmakers had undermined the voters’ will and leading to lawsuits and regulatory confusion.

“I’m going to push the envelope every opportunity that I have … [and] utilize my new position as a very loud soapbox every opportunity that I have to expand access,” Fried told Cannabis Wire.

Fried hopes that when it comes to cannabis, she’ll be working tandem with the new governor and the rest of the Republicans in Florida’s elected cabinet. The cannabis industry was enthused when the state’s new governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, appointed Matt Gaetz, a former member of the Florida House who is now in Congress and has long supported medical cannabis, to his transition team. On Monday, DeSantis told reporters that his administration would make an announcement “within a week or two” regarding lawsuits against the state’s ban on smokable cannabis and its strict cap on licenses, according to Florida Politics.

I’m going to push the envelope every opportunity that I have … [and] utilize my new position as a very loud soapbox every opportunity that I have to expand access.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried

Another outstanding question is whether DeSantis will support the current requirement that cannabis businesses in Florida are “vertically integrated,” or control all aspects of the business, from the cultivation of the crop to the sale of the product. Only big, well-funded companies can swing the capital to vertically integrate, so this also makes it that much more difficult to open up shop in Florida.

After the Parkland high school mass shooting, it would have been understandable if Fried’s race had been consumed by gun control issues since her new office handles the concealed-carry permit process. The gun control group headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Everytown for Gun Safety, promised more than $1.8 million to support Fried, and the Democrat traded barbs with the National Rifle Association.

That said, Fried believes that focusing on water quality issues and cannabis, not the gun issue, ultimately led to her victory.

“The conditions that people are using medical marijuana for don’t impact Democrats or Republicans any differently,” Fried told Cannabis Wire. “And so when we talked about those issues and made them human and not political people saw that ‘it’s OK, if I’m a Republican, it’s OK to vote for a Democrat because we’re going to get good policies done.’”

Fried said the state medical cannabis system’s flaws had become apparent when her mother was recently diagnosed with cancer; Fried continues to work with to get access to cannabis as she undergoes treatment. Fried also detailed how she plans to use her cabinet position to push for better patient access to medical cannabis in Florida.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cannabis Wire: How did you win as a Democrat in a year when other statewide Democrats struggled?

Fried: You know, the reality is that we ran on issues that transcended partisan politics. We talked about issues that impacted and affected people whether they were a Democrat, whether they’re Republicans, whether they’re independents, like the cannabis situation and issue.

Cannabis Wire: It was a strange situation when Wells Fargo closed your campaign bank account because of your support for medical cannabis, but it also gave your campaign national media exposure it might not have had. What do you make of what happened?

Fried: Yeah, I don’t know exactly why it happened. I definitely think that I was specifically targeted because I was making cannabis and medical marijuana and expansion of patient access such a pivotal part of my campaign. I think that I just brought attention to somebody who — whether it was an opponent, whether it was the opposition party, but somebody — definitely came in there and made it make noise inside of Wells Fargo for them to bring to light this issue. What it did when they closed down my account it made me fight harder. Realizing what our patients and our doctors and our license holders across the country deal with and that we are still not a normalized industry, and the impact that has on the patients is tremendous. Until we can be regulated like every other business, we’re never going to be normalized and it’s still going to be looked at as a criminal enterprise, which it’s not.

Cannabis Wire: What are the biggest things that both the governor and the legislature need to do for medical cannabis in Florida?

Fried: Obviously applications need to go out and we need to hand out more licenses because once there’s more actors in the field prices get reduced there’s more product lines available to our patients. The reality is that most people in our state, our patients, don’t understand that this is available to them. I’m now being affected personally. My mother was diagnosed with cancer a week before the elections, and she started to go through chemo. But for my intimate knowledge of how this program works she may not understand it. Her doctors … aren’t part of the registry and couldn’t recommend cannabis. And so for her she wouldn’t really understand that this is available to her. And so that has to change. And then I think that we need to start tackling whether vertical integration is the right approach. We are precluding a lot of small business owners, a lot of minorities from getting involved in the program and partaking in this business opportunity.

Cannabis Wire: I’m sorry to hear about your mother. Did cannabis end up helping her?

Fried: She got on the registry and went over to one of the dispensaries last week and she has some products, but she was given more of a CBD line as opposed to high THC for the days of chemo and the days afterwards. And when I said to her, ‘Mom you know you need to take the CBD every single day and you need to be taking the high THC when you’re going through the actual chemo treatments.’ And her response was, ‘I spent just so much money, how am I going to afford the rest of this?’ So that’s scary to think about that so many of our patients even when they have access to any kind of affordable access, it’s not just having a dispensary down the street, it’s making sure, because health insurance doesn’t cover this, that they can financially afford to get this medicine that they need.

Cannabis Wire: Since your background is as a medical cannabis lobbyist but you’re not in charge of the office that handles licenses or the Department of Health, how do you plan to use your position to push the issue?

Fried: I’m going to push the envelope every opportunity that I have as a member of the cabinet. We oversee Veterans Affairs. We oversee the insurance commissioner. We oversee the financial regulator. And so I get to have an opportunity to have conversations with these agency heads and push the envelope — ‘so Veterans Affairs what are we doing for our vets who need access to medical marijuana for PTSD? How are we giving them access and doing research here in our state?’

For insurance regulations, what are we doing to get health insurance companies to start utilizing medical marijuana as part of their co-pays and annual visits? What are we doing for property and casualty insurance? Also because I oversee the pesticides, we will help put out the edibles rules as soon as humanly possible so that we can start getting edible products to our patients here in our state. We also get to oversee, because it’s still an ag product, water quality and water, best management practices for our cultivation companies. And then also as a consumer advocate, on the back-end I’ll be involved in getting roundtables across the state that allow our consumers and our patients and our doctors to kind of get feedback on what’s happening on the ground. Being able to be an advocate for them and utilize my new position as a very loud soapbox and use every opportunity that I have to expand access.

Cannabis Wire: Do you think you’ll get any criticism for pushing these issues as agriculture secretary since you don’t have a direct oversight role of the program?

Fried: I would beg to differ because I’m a member of the cabinet and as a member of the cabinet those individuals report directly to me and the other members the cabinet. So that is a thousand percent within my duties my responsibilities to be asking these questions.

Cannabis Wire: Do you have any insight on what’s next for medical cannabis with the new administration coming in?

Fried: I have not had any direct conversations with the governor, but I know that he has a lot of advisers around him who have made him understand the importance of properly implementing the amendment and what the lawsuits are doing for the expansion of the program. I’m hopeful that he’s been listening to the people on the campaign trail, listening to the message that I was talking about every single day and saying that this is what the people of the state of Florida are wanting. So I’m hopeful that he in fact starts to drop some of these lawsuits. And I also am hopeful that the legislature this year comes in and starts to fix some of these problems that we’ve been seeing.

Cannabis Wire: Why are local governments in Florida banning dispensaries?

A lot of our local governments, especially in South Florida who have been dealing with the pill mills and the opioid epidemic, are hesitant to allow dispensaries in their communities. And so when they are not allowed to regulate them any differently than a pharmacy — or they can ban them — a lot of our local governments have banned the dispensaries.

I still think that our state or state legislature made it seem like it was an all or nothing approach in allowing them to ban. It makes it seem like it’s OK to ban, you have given them permission to do so.

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Cannabis is rich territory for serious journalism. Legalization raises urgent questions about regulation and law, technology and taxation, science and business, criminal justice and individual liberties. It stands at the intersection of a booming billion-dollar industry and promising advances in medicine, all while remaining federally illegal.

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