Cannabis is about to be ‘re-scheduled’ by feds. What does that mean for Florida's push for recreational marijuana?

Critics say that decision can’t obscure the concerns that have surfaced in recent years stemming from its high potency

click to enlarge Cannabis is about to be ‘re-scheduled’ by feds. What does that mean for Florida's push for recreational marijuana?
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The Biden administration’s announcement last month — that it plans to reclassify cannabis as a lower-risk substance nationwide — is being embraced as a positive development for advocates working to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana in Florida. But critics say that decision can’t obscure the concerns that have surfaced in recent years stemming from its high potency.

Still, the news on the federal front was a significant development in the ongoing official governmental embrace of cannabis. On the state level, 24 states are now legal for recreational purposes and 14 are authorized for medical marijuana. Florida has had medical marijuana since 2016, and recreational weed will be on the ballot for voters to decide in November.

Smart & Safe Florida, the advocacy group working to pass what will be known as Amendment 3, said in late April:

“This move will help destigmatize cannabis use and help usher in a future in which cannabis products can be safely and properly regulated with further federal reform,” the organization said in a statement. In a follow-up interview, an official with the campaign said that they will definitely reference the issue of federal reclassification as part of their messaging for the Florida ballot initiative.

“I also think it’s a very science-backed approach that the government has taken,” said spokesperson Morgan Hill, who labeled the announcement a “historical moment in that it’s the first time a federal agency has studied and relied upon scientific research about cannabis in order to reach a determination in its scheduling.”

But Robert Mikos, professor of Law at Vanderbilt University Law School, and a leading expert on federalism and drug law, cautioned that the federal rule change on cannabis only affects the Controlled Substance Act and doesn’t change any of the rules that applies to a separate federal drug law, the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act.

“It’s still clear from the documents that the FDA released as part of this whole scheduling process that it was not declaring that marijuana was somehow approved under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act,” he said. “It hasn’t been determined that it’s safe and effective. Under that statute it continues to require these randomized controlled trials, these really big clinical studies and nobody has done those for marijuana.”

High potency?

As the ballot initiative on weed plays out in Florida, an argument that critics are likely to deploy revolves around the high potency of today’s cannabis. And they’ll also likely lean on reports that have emerged in recent years that show its deleterious effect on certain young males, specifically when it comes to psychosis and cognitive impairment.

“The Biden Administration’s rescheduling recommendation doesn’t change the fact that today’s THC products, often marketed as candies, vapes and other kid-friendly products, have been medically connected to depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, IQ loss, and suicidality, among other consequences,” said Kevin Sabet, who served as a senior advisor in President Barack Obama’s drug policy office, in an email to the Phoenix. “It’s unquestionably that the industry will continue to downplay the risks of these dangerous drugs, regardless of marijuana’s schedule.”

In addition, a comprehensive study of over 6.9 million Danish citizens between 1972 and 2021 published a year ago concluded that young males between the ages of 16-25 were particularly susceptible to schizophrenia. The report said that “for younger males, the proportion of preventable CUD (cannabis use disorder) — associated cases may be as high as 25% or even 30%.”

To address such concerns, the Yale School of Medicine announced in January that it will soon establish a research center to “study the acute and chronic effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on neurodevelopment and mental health.”

Johannes Thrul, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said there have been some studies looking at the perceived benefits of cannabis, but not many. That’s because there’s been little incentive to do so because of the bureaucracy involved when marijuana has been classified as what’s called a Schedule I substance. The Biden administration is now pursuing the case to move it to Schedule III.

“You have to produce findings. You have to produce research,” Thrul said. “For a junior person it can be quite the risk to do research that maybe won’t produce anything for years because you have to go through all of these administrative hoops and then you can see how that structurally might then lead people to work in other areas, maybe with substances that are easier to study where those regulations are maybe not quite as cumbersome.”

Political advantage?

So does the federal news about rescheduling cannabis have the potential to move the dial on how the Florida electorate will vote on Amendment 3 this fall?

“It’s a little early to reach any conclusions about the viability of the amendment as many Floridians have yet to focus on the election and the campaign has not really begun in earnest,” said Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner. “With that said, I do believe that the change in the schedule may help as it provides an argument for supporters to use in persuading voters. However, in Florida, where you need 60% to get passage, any amendment faces an uphill battle. Supporters of Amendment 3 are going to need strong turnout along with a message that can reach moderates and people that otherwise might be reluctant to vote yes.”

Julie Gunnigle is the legal director for the Arizona chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). She was a candidate for Maricopa County Attorney (which encompasses Phoenix) in 2020, when her name was on the same ballot as a measure to legalize recreational cannabis, which Arizona voters passed that year with more than 60% support.

She disagrees with the notion that because Florida is a red state that Republican voters won’t support the measure.

“Keep in mind, when I lost in 2020 in the County Attorney race, we were there every single night when there was another ballot drop and what we saw was fascinating,” she said. “Take for example, Mohave County. Those voters were rolling in 60%-70% for Trump, even in the late ballots that were arriving at the polling stations. They were still voting 60%-40% for cannabis. So I think that it would be a mistake and a misnomer to look at what happened in Arizona and be like, ‘Well, Arizona’s trending purple, marijuana’s really a Democratic issue. I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”

The Republican Party of Florida announced earlier this month that it was coming out against Amendment 3, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has blasted the measure on multiple occasions and has said he’ll campaign against the measure.

Will that move the needle?

Several Republicans told the Phoenix that they were skeptical about the Florida GOP’s stance on the issue.

“Most people trust adults to make adult decisions,” said former Pinellas County Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes. “I think that amongst Republicans – which is supposed to be a party of limited government and personal responsibility – the Republican Party of Florida took the absolute opposite approach in this case, and wanted to be the nanny-state that still tells people what they can and can’t do. At some juncture, we need to let adults be adults and I think that this is a symbol of that.”

Jake Hoffman, the executive director for the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, said he wasn’t surprised to see the state party come out officially against the amendment “after decades and decades of having the same stance.”

But he said that in his own personal opinion the GOP-controlled Legislature needs to open up the cannabis industry right now, which he labels a “cartel of four or five companies that have the entire industry under their wing” in Tallahassee. (In fact, four medical marijuana companies in the state – Trulieve, MÜV, Ayr Cannabis Dispensary and Curaleaf — represent more than half of the state’s 635 dispensaries, as listed by the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use).

While organized opposition has yet to emerge, Smart & Smart Florida is exploiting the vacuum by announcing this week that they are placing an initial ad buy of $5 million to air four ads promoting the amendment that will air across broadcast, cable, streaming, radio and digital platforms.

Brandes said he won’t lay down a prediction about whether the measure will get 60% support this year, the threshold required for approval for constitutional amendments. But he says it ultimately will happen.

“Whether it’s in November or in 2028 or in 2030, the trajectory of the country and the trajectory of the electorate is to support adult use and the Legislature has fought it and is trying to fight it, clearly now the RPOF has taken a position against it, but they are at odds with the direction of the country. And whether it gets 57% or 61%, it will show that overall the electorate overwhelmingly supports adult use in Florida,” he said.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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