DeSantis won’t decriminalize cannabis if elected president, but would any other candidate?

click to enlarge DeSantis won’t decriminalize cannabis if elected president, but would any other candidate?
Photo via DeSantis/Twitter
Taking questions on the campaign trail in South Carolina last month, Ron DeSantis was asked by a man, who would identify himself only as speaking on behalf of military veterans who have endured illness and injury while serving, whether he would decriminalize marijuana if elected president next year.

DeSantis said he would not.

“I think that we have too many people using drugs in this country right now,” the Florida governor said. “I think it hurts our workforce readiness. I think it hurts people’s ability to prosper and, just in my experience in growing up in the Tampa Bay area in Florida, the kids in high school who got involved in that that I went with, you know, all suffered. All their activities, all their grades, and everything like that.”

While running for governor in Florida in 2018, DeSantis promised to implement the will of the voters when it came to medical marijuana, and won support from advocates early in his administration after he stood next to Orlando trial attorney and Democratic megadonor John Morgan and Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz in 2019 and called for the GOP-controlled Legislature to repeal a medical marijuana law they’d passed two years earlier that prohibited individuals from actually smoking cannabis.

That’s because after more than 71% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2016 (an initiative that Morgan spearheaded), GOP lawmakers passed and then Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that allowed access to the plant in pill, oil, edible, and vape form, but made it illegal to smoke.

But since then?

“Ron DeSantis has done absolutely nothing to advance cannabis reform in the state of Florida beyond the initial executive order that he signed within his first three months in office, which obviously John Morgan laid a lot of pressure on him to do that as well as his former colleague Matt Gaetz,” said Chris Cano, executive director of the Suncoast Chapter of NORML (National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

Black farmers

Last month, DeSantis did sign into law a measure that could potentially open the medical marijuana market in Florida to Black farmers who have yet to be granted a license to grow, process and distribute cannabis by the state’s Department of Health. The measure also allows physicians to use telehealth methods to renew medical marijuana certifications for patients.

Cano is still upset that DeSantis office hasn’t moved at all on prohibiting employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their use of medical marijuana. A state appeals court last month upheld the firing of a Florida Department of Corrections officer for using medical marijuana. The officer said he was using medical pot to treat post-traumatic stress disorder related to previous military service.

Democrats in the Legislature have offered measures to change that in recent years, but they haven’t moved at all in the GOP-controlled House and Senate (there are such laws in approximately 20 states, according to NORML).

“We see every single year multiple stories about teachers and correctional officers, firefighters and school administrators all being fired from their jobs for using a state-sanctioned medicine. To me, as governor, that’s a failure on his part to act,” Cano said.

“Because every time we go to the Legislature, they always put it on, ‘Well, if that’s not on the governor’s agenda, it’s not moving anywhere.’ So if reform’s not on his agenda as governor, how could we ever think that he’s going to take action as president?”

Change unlikely

While DeSantis is a hard “no” regarding recreational cannabis, a look at public records and statements of Florida’s two other Republican presidential candidates as well as President Joe Biden’s indicates that, on the federal level at least, not much major would likely change on this issue no matter who raises his or her hand to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025.

During his four years in office, Donald Trump took a relatively hands-off approach to federal regulation of cannabis. At one point, he announced his support for amending the federal Controlled Substances Act to allow states to decide for themselves how to regulate cannabis, but that legislation never moved in Congress.

Cano said the most significant action that Trump took in this space was to sign the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the production of industrial hemp.

“Under that, Nikki Fried, when she was our agriculture commissioner, essentially opened up the opportunity to create hemp businesses in the state of Florida, and we have over 10,000 of them that are thriving in our state,” Cano said.

(On a related note, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and GOP lawmakers backed a bill earlier this year limiting the amount of THC in hemp products that advocates warned would have dealt a major blow to the hemp industry in Florida. The GOP bill sponsors ultimately withdrew that controversial provision of the bill before it made its way to the floor for a final vote).
Has it been a winning week for Donald Trump? - Gage Skidmore via Flickr/CC 2.0
Gage Skidmore via Flickr/CC 2.0
Has it been a winning week for Donald Trump?

Trump

Trump has been reluctant to express exactly how he feels about the issue. However. In a Newsmax interview with Greg Kelly in April, Trump said of cannabis that “it’s not helping people. I mean, studies are saying that it does damage — it does significant damage — and yet from a voting standpoint, it’s a pretty popular thing. Canada has gone all that way, and other countries have gone all that way, some countries won’t do it, but you gotta take a look at some final results, but indications are that it’s not exactly helpful.”

Speaking at the NRA Convention in Indianapolis in April, Trump suggested a link between the use of “genetically engineered” marijuana and mass shootings. (The former president had said that if re-elected in 2024 he would direct the Food and Drug Administration to investigate potential causes of such violence.) “We have to look at whether common psychiatric drugs, as well as genetically engineered cannabis and other narcotics, are causing psychotic breaks” he said.

Ducked vote

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, the most recent Republican from Florida to enter the presidential sweepstakes, has a scant paper trail when it comes to cannabis.

As a member of the Miami City Commission in 2017, when the idea of giving police officers discretion to issue civil citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession instead of making an arrest came before the board, Suarez and another council member “disappeared” and did not actually vote on the matter, according to a report by the Miami Herald.

However, Suarez later told the paper that he supported issuing civil citations for misdemeanor cannabis possession. His campaign did not respond to our request for comment.
click to enlarge DeSantis won’t decriminalize cannabis if elected president, but would any other candidate? (3)
Photo by Dave Decker

Biden

Cannabis advocates say Joe Biden has had a somewhat mixed record as president when it comes to this issue. Early in his first year in office, dozens of White House staffers were suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past cannabis use, the Daily Beast reported.

In October 2022, Biden announced a full, unconditional, and categorical pardon for prior federal offenses of simple pot possession. At the same time, he announced that he was directing Department of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review the decades-old policy of listing cannabis as a Schedule I drug.

That listing has discouraged banks and other financial institutions from maintaining relationships with cannabis businesses. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, only about 11 percent of all U.S. banks and 4 percent of all U.S. credit unions “are actively providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses.”

“Biden has not come out in favor of marijuana legalization, because he’s not in favor of it,” said Kevin Sabet, a former three-time White House Office of National Drug Control Policy adviser and now president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “He never has been, so I think that the way they split the baby on this is to say they’re going to have a scheduling review.”

Sabet is skeptical that Biden will receive a recommendation to change cannabis scheduling.

“The science hasn’t change since the last time they reviewed this for Schedule I — the science has gotten worse; about psychosis, schizophrenia, the potency — if they’re going to stick to the science, I don’t see the scheduling changing,” he said in a telephone conversation.

“I think the expungement was more of a symbolic move — nobody was let out of prison after Joe Biden’s actions, so it really was not a way to empty our prisons. I think it was his way of ‘doing something’ on marijuana and, however important it might have been, I don’t think he wants to do more than that.”

Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., considered the longest of long shots as a Democratic party challenger to Biden, did speak about drug policy last week.

Appearing at a town-hall meeting on NewsNation, Kennedy Jr. said he would “legalize psychedelic drugs — some form of legalization.” But when speaking about cannabis Kennedy would go only as far as to say, “I would decriminalize marijuana. I will make safe banking laws for people who are selling it, but I will tax it federally.”

Sabet noted that it may be obvious, but decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization.

“I think people are confounding those terms like RFK Jr. did recently, so people are going to need to be clearer about what they’re actually talking about,” he said.
click to enlarge DeSantis won’t decriminalize cannabis if elected president, but would any other candidate? (4)
Photo via Adobe

National picture

Currently, 38 states allow the medical use of cannabis products and 23 states have legalized adult recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

However, momentum for legalization has certainly cooled in red states over the past year. Referenda to allow adult recreational use in four GOP-leaning states, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota, have all failed. In Oklahoma, that was despite the fact that the “no” side was outspent by more than 20-to-1, according to the Associated Press.

That doesn’t auger well for Florida, where a well-funded campaign to place a recreational cannabis for adult use citizen initiative on the 2024 ballot has already collected the requisite number of signatures required for a state Supreme Court review. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is strongly opposed to the proposal, telling the justices that the ballot language they’ve been asked to approve “misleads voters in several key respects.”

Back in Washington, several bills are floating in Congress regarding cannabis, including legislation filed by Southwest Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Steube that would direct the Drug Enforcement Administration to transfer cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is sponsoring the SAFE Banking Act, which would ensure that legal cannabis businesses have access to banking and financial services. Schumer has said that one of his “top priorities” for the bill is to ensure it contains specific criminal justice reforms, including “expunging criminal records for certain low-level marijuana offenses.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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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