State Politics

‘A super slap in the face.’ Longtime advocates ridicule out-of-state pot czar pick.

From marijuana lobbyist to candidate for agriculture commissioner.

Nicole "Nikki" Fried, the Democratic candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services speaks during a rally in Orlando on August 31, 2018.
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Nicole "Nikki" Fried, the Democratic candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services speaks during a rally in Orlando on August 31, 2018.

Her three-page résumé may only have the word “cannabis” twice but as of Wednesday, she’s Florida’s first pot czar.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced that Holly Bell, a Nashville consultant and banker who worked to help service the hemp and cannabis industry, will be the state’s first director of cannabis — a $110,000 per year job.

The director will be tasked with overseeing the department’s involvement in the state medical marijuana program, directing rule-making for edibles and being a patient advocate, Fried said at a press conference announcing her decision.

“The stakes are really high in our state to get this right,” Fried said. “Holly’s knowledge and understanding of managing programs and startups and experience bringing people together to implement a vision makes her a bold and bright choice to build a future of cannabis here in the state of Florida.”

The new director, who grew up on a farm and has family in Florida, contributed $500 to Fried’s campaign in October.

Holly_Bell.jpg
Holly Bell HollyBellConsulting.com

“My role in Florida will be to understand needs, find solutions and keep progress moving forward along with the commissioner’s vision,” she said.

When asked about what her first priority is, she said she’ll “need to do a lot of research.”

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Some Floridians who work in the cannabis industry expressed their disappointment Wednesday, saying Bell is too green for the gig.

Bell, whose background is in banking, has been consulting in Tennessee since August. She most recently worked in Denver, where she spent two months writing educational content for the Safe Harbor Program, a financial services company that connects cannabis businesses with banks in Colorado.

Her application was one of a few dozen submitted for the role, a job opening that was never listed on the department’s website, but rather hosted on Fried’s transition team website. Among the applicants for the role were some of the medical cannabis industry’s best-known advocates.

Some of those candidates, including Bill Monroe, helped come up with the idea for the position at a private meeting with Fried in Orlando after her election.

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“She said she was going to work hand in hand with us … then she goes and picks someone from out of state,” said Monroe, who once directed operations at 3 Boys Farm and now serves as an adviser to treatment centers across the state.

“It’s a slap in the face,” he said. “You spend years and years trying to build something up. You have people in power who seem to be on the advocate side, but then you go pick an outsider who has done no work in Florida.”

The new director, who has a combined two years of experience in the cannabis space, received a degree in agriculture economics from Purdue University in Indiana.

Josephine Cannella-Krehl said she was surprised someone with so little experience got picked, while she never got an interview.

“I’ve been involved in medical cannabis in Florida since before we had a program,” said Cannella-Krehl, who is a therapist and marijuana advocate, and also sits on the board of the University of Florida’s hemp research program.

“I just have a big question mark on it, that’s all,” she said. “Expertise in medical cannabis and in hemp … I have that! It does make me sad.”

On her professional website, Bell had listed that she was on “permanent assignment” as Florida’s director of cannabis, but the listing was removed by Wednesday morning.

Miami Beach-based marijuana advocacy group Florida for Care put out a laudatory statement Wednesday afternoon, saying Bell was the perfect choice for Fried’s office. Eric Stevens, the group’s managing director, had applied for the job.

“Holly’s 25-year career in banking and financial services allowed her to understand the business challenges faced by the cannabis and hemp industries,” they wrote in an email.

Robert Roundtree, a cannabis entrepreneur and founder of a medical marijuana educational website, said Fried made the right choice in picking a director who has a background in financial services and banking.

Fried first made national news during election season after her campaign bank account was shut down twice due to contributions from the marijuana industry.

“[Commissioner] Fried has stated solving the banking issue for Florida is a priority and she’s off to an incredible start to accomplish that goal,” he said, “The announcement of two advisory boards is an excellent idea and a radical change in the right direction. I condone in the strongest way.”

Trial attorney and longtime medical marijuana advocate John Morgan tweeted his praise, calling Fried the “Queen of the Green.”

In addition to Bell’s hire, Fried also announced a medical marijuana committee and a hemp advisory committee.

Longtime advocates, however, are skeptical of whether they’d join on.

Monroe said it’s baffling how Fried would hire Bell but still ask for the advocates’ help.

“Why she couldn’t pick from a pool of very qualified people is beyond me,” he said. “Then you’re going to have these boards and ask advocates to be on these boards and support her. It’s a slap in the face.”

Cannella-Krehl said if a role on the committee is voluntary, it’s disingenuous to include people you didn’t consider for the paid position.

Brett Puffenbarger, a longtime advocate who didn’t apply for the director role, said he feels betrayed by Fried, who stopped answering his phone calls after the election.

“We don’t want to help. None of us do,” he said. “Let them fail, that’s where I’m at with it.”

He added the out-of-state hire was “a super slap in the face.”

Puffenbarger was among the group of advocates who met with Fried in the fall and came up with the idea of a cannabis director. He said she asked them who they would choose, and they all endorsed Steve Edmonds, who has been in the hemp business for about two decades.

“We said if she picked the person from outside of Florida, she’s going to get crucified.” said Puffenbarger, who runs medical marijuana charity Bud for Vets. “And she is.”

Samantha J. Gross is a state government reporter for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times bureau in Tallahassee, where she covers state government and politics. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.


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