Florida Politics

Florida’s shift on medical marijuana encouraged by millions in political donations

Update: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 182 into law Monday afternoon after this story was first published.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill on his desk to end the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana, he’ll resolve one of the biggest disputes in a two-year fight in which cannabis companies have pushed to lift what they deem improper restrictions on a marketplace now legitimized in the state Constitution.

They litigated. They lobbied. And they bet — a lot — on the right politicians.

Since the summer of 2016, when a campaign to bring a full-fledged medical marijuana market to Florida by constitutional amendment hit high gear, Florida’s licensed cannabis corporations and their executives have given at least $2.5 million in political contributions to state lawmakers and political parties. About two-thirds of that money came in the 22 months after former Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law regulating the state’s newly authorized market in a way that allowed patients to use prescribed oils, creams and vaping products, but limited storefronts and outlawed smoking.

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A close-up of a flowering marijuana plant in the production room of Modern Health Concepts’ greenhouse in Southwest Miami-Dade. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

The largest single donation by a cannabis company — $50,000 from a Texas affiliate of Surterra — went to DeSantis in October.

“Their participation goes hand in hand with it being a lawful industry now, or a constitutionally authorized industry, in the state of Florida,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, whose Innovate Florida political committee has received at least $102,000 from marijuana companies and executives since 2016. “But the extent of their influence has yet to be seen.”

So far, the industry’s biggest players — among the half-dozen that got their foot in the door after the state first allowed companies to produce low-THC products in 2014 — have given prolifically.

Surterra, launched by venture capitalists in Atlanta, has donated $1.1 million since the summer of 2016, not including its donations to federal Super PACs. Trulieve, out of North Florida, has donated $564,000. Curaleaf, which grows and processes its cannabis in rural South Miami-Dade, has contributed $469,000.

And in 2019, the three companies have given at least $103,500 to lawmakers’ political committees. All of the donations followed a Jan. 17 press conference DeSantis held in Orlando with marijuana advocate and booster John Morgan to declare that he’d drop the state’s appeals of several lawsuits — including one filed by Morgan — if lawmakers didn’t pass bills by March 15 allowing patients to smoke marijuana.

“What the Florida Legislature has done to implement the people’s will has not been done in accordance with what the amendment envisioned,” DeSantis said at the time. “Whether [patients] have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?”

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Governor Ron DeSantis, Center speaks at his press conference on his plant to pressure state legislators and give them a mid-March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. (Left to Right) Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary, John Morgan, U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez. Willie J. Allen Jr. Tampa Bay Times

Neither Rodrigues nor Oliva, from Miami Lakes, responded to text messages seeking comment. But last month, as Rodrigues’ bill moved through the Health and Human Services committee that he chairs, the Estero lawmaker warned that without legislation to guide smoking marijuana, a federal judge’s ruling striking down Florida’s smoking ban would leave the state with “the law of the wild west.”

Ben Pollara, the political consultant who steered the campaign to bring a full-blown marijuana market to Florida, thinks political contributions have helped the industry make its case. But he doesn’t think ideological opposition has ever been particularly strong even among Republicans, and pointed out that nearly three-quarters of the state supported Amendment 2.

“As it’s become more popular, it’s become something with political upside in terms of voters,” Pollara said. “And when you’ve got votes and campaign contributions, that’s a powerful sauce for moving legislators minds.”

Though the cannabis industry has quickly become a reliable source of donations to state campaigns, it is hardly the most prolific spender. To put the money into context, state records show sugar conglomerate Florida Crystals gave $4.1 million during the 2018 election cycle. Utility giant Florida Power & Light gave nearly $8.5 million.

Nor has legislation necessarily followed donations. Sen. Rob Bradley, among the biggest recipients of cannabis donations, was a sponsor of the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act long before Costa Farms gave his political committee its first $10,000 contribution from a cannabis company in August 2015.

“As is the case with many companies both large and small, we support candidates and elected officials who support our industry,” Curaleaf, the cannabis brand that grew from Costa Farms’ cultivation license, said in a statement.

But the industry — which due to marijuana’s status in federal law as an illegal substance has become a market for individual investors and companies traded on Canadian stock exchanges — has also chosen carefully when it comes to whom they’ve given. The state’s licensed cannabis cultivators appear to have given no money to Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor who said he wanted to legalize recreational marijuana and led in public polls until losing by a hair on election day. On the other hand, DeSantis, who trailed in most public polls before beating Gillum by a hair, received $70,000.

The Democratic politician receiving the most industry money is Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist who won the race for agriculture commissioner and also happens to date Jake Bergmann, who stepped down as CEO of Surterra the day before the election. Fried, who wants to assume oversight of the state’s medical marijuana program from the Department of Health, received at least $58,000.

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Nicole “Nikki” Fried, Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, declared victory and announced her transition team at a press conference Saturday afternoon. Nikki Fried campaign

Galvano, the Senate president, says he doesn’t see a link between the campaign money given to lawmakers and the recent change in position on smoking marijuana. If anything, he thinks marijuana companies would have rather DeSantis simply drop the state’s appeals over the legislation now sitting on the governor’s desk.

“I believe the industry would have preferred the governor just leave the litigation and move on and operate under the broad order that Judge [Karen] Gievers entered. But we, as a Legislature, had sought to at least be given the opportunity to curtail the activities and put in the restrictions,” he said. “I don’t really connect the two other than, like most industries that participate in the process, they want to be relevant and part of it. And that’s where they’re coming from.”

Miami Herald reporter Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.

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