Trulieve’s recreational marijuana initiative will bring unique challenges to Florida. Are we ready?

By any measure, thirty million dollars is a lot of money. It’s particularly striking in the political arena when the opposition has yet to raise a single cent. This is the current state of affairs in Florida as Trulieve, the medical marijuana company, has reinvested nearly $31 million of its medicinal pot profits into the Smart & Safe Florida political committee aiming to legalize recreational marijuana for all adults.

Smart & Safe Florida’s current focus is to gather signatures to put the issue in front of voters in the 2024 general election, and they’re well on the way, with 416,933 petition signatures already validated by the state, a number sufficient to initiate a review of the proposed ballot wording by the Florida Supreme Court. They’ll need to submit 891,589 verified signatures to secure a place on the 2024 ballot.

If the “Adult Personal Use of Marijuana” proposal is approved by voters, individuals aged 21 and older will be permitted to possess, purchase, or use marijuana products for non-medical purposes.

And right now, at least, nobody is standing in the way.

The natural opponents to legalizing marijuana, which include law enforcement leaders, health care professionals and a sizeable swath of the state’s business community, have yet to get organized, even though the ramifications for the state are substantial.

The state’s top Republican, Governor Ron DeSantis, made comments during his 2022 re-election campaign that he is sympathetic to efforts towards decriminalize marijuana use. But he’s also made it clear that he views full-blown legalization as problematic for the Sunshine State and its family-friendly image. He’s been widely quoted about his concerns regarding the “pungent odor” that proliferates at some events in states where it’s been legalized.

“We’re not going to use the prison system for that,” he said. “But that’s different than kind of wanting it to be prevalent like you see in some of these other areas.”

DeSantis has plenty of allies in the legislature, too. One, State Representative Randy Fine, is staunchly against legalization.

“Having personally seen the devastating impact of recreational drug use in cities like Denver and San Franscisco,” Fine noted, “we won’t be bringing their mess to Florida if I have anything to say about it.”

But that’s the thing: if Trulieve succeeds in getting the issue on the 2024 ballot, state lawmakers won’t be able to stop it. At least not directly. But there will be plenty of regulatory work to be done to determine how to merge a complicated constitutional amendment that runs counter to federal law, with existing state laws and business regulations that touch virtually every industry in the state.

Brewster Bevis, President and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state’s most influential business associations, said his members, which include some of Florida’s largest companies, had not yet taken a position on the issue.

If they decide to oppose the measure, the state’s business community will need to get organized, and fast. From heightened workplace safety risks, diminished employee productivity, workforce retention and enforcement of drug-free workplace policies, Florida businesses have a lot to be concerned about. There’s also potential liability and escalating insurance costs arising from marijuana-related incidents in the workplace, not to mention the general brand issues, particularly those that cater to families, which in Florida are heavily concentrated in the hospitality and tourism sectors and whom view legalization as something that could tarnish their reputation and repel their clientele.

In a remarkable shift over the past decade, a staggering 21 states have legalized recreational marijuana use. Despite an ongoing federal prohibition, public support for legalization has surged, gaining traction among Democratic politicians and even some Republicans. A number of holdout states are now grappling with the complexities of legalizing the drug, while Congress considers bills to decriminalize it on a federal level.

But even though some proponents might argue that Florida would merely be “catching up” with the rest of the country, Florida is still currently aligned with the majority. If Trulieve gets its way, the Sunshine State would be the first and only state in entire southeastern United States, spanning from North Carolina in the east, to Texas in the west, to legalize the drug.

And Florida might have more at stake than most of its neighbors, too. With tourism and hospitality as the state’s primary economic driver, the ramifications of legalized recreational marijuana are far-reaching. The hospitality industry, already under pressure to recruit and retain employees, will face even greater challenges with recreational marijuana.

Carol Dover, President and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said her members, which include some of the state’s largest hotels and restaurant chains, as well as individual members, were likely take up the matter at their annual summer meeting to decide how what to do about the ballot initiative.

Plagued with high turnover rates and a shortage of labor, the hospitality sector could find it even more difficult to consistently enforce and monitor drug policies, while safety and liability concerns are likely to increase. Employers across all industries – not just hospitality and tourism – will need to reevaluate and establish clear drug policies.

One industry that is already taking the issue seriously: heavy transport. Alix Miller, President and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, points out that the trucking industry is highly regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which prohibits drivers from using any sort of Schedule I substance, including all forms of marijuana. USDOT also  subjects drivers to drug testing for all substances listed under Schedule I.

Miller’s association isn’t waiting to see what happens, either. She says FTA is looking for ways to prepare the industry no matter what happens in Florida.

“As more states legalize recreational marijuana, the federal government must mitigate the impact on highway safety,” Miller told The Capitolist. “The trucking industry is advocating for stronger safety standards in place, including the option for motor carriers to use hair testing, and not just urinalysis, for screening.”

Law enforcement agencies traditionally have opposed legalization efforts. While neither Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil nor the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA) responded to a request for comment on this story, Florida Sheriffs have previously issued a resolution coming out strongly in opposition to legalizing the drug.

“The dangers of marijuana have been well documented in recent years with increased crime and traffic accidents in states that have passed legislation legalizing marijuana,” the resolution stated. “For example, of the 20 states with the highest driver acknowledgement of drugged driving, 15 were states that have passed legislation legalizing marijuana. The Los Angeles and Denver Police Departments have reported significant increases in crime since marijuana was legalized in their respective states.”

Beyond criminal use, the detection of marijuana impairment presents an even more complex challenge for businesses than alcohol, as THC can remain in a user’s system for an extended period, complicating efforts to determine on-the-job impairment. And then there’s the seemingly simple matter of training employees on what’s allowed and what’s not. Many workers might mistakenly believe that it’s okay to use marijuana as they see fit once it’s been legalized. But that doesn’t mean the drug’s use can’t be heavily restricted and regulated – and many employers will be forced to draw a hard line in the sand.

Despite concerns over public health, safety, liability and business risks, proponents of legalization point out that marijuana has proven to be less dangerous than alcohol. They also tout the drug’s potential as a revenue source, particularly in bigger states like Florida, with increased tax revenue for state and local governments, which could be allocated to public programs like education, healthcare, law enforcement and infrastructure.

Economically, the industry’s growth would create thousands of jobs, stimulating local economies and providing new employment opportunities. During a recent television appearance on CNBC’s “Fast Money,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers pointed out that if the ballot initiative passes, her company believes the recreational market in Florida could be as large as $6 billion annually.

It’s no wonder Trulieve is investing so much money up front to expand the market for their product.

But it’s not all about money for Trulieve. It’s also a question of personal freedom. Though cannabis is already legal in just 21 states, those states represent over 49 percent of all adults in the country.

“Currently half of adults in America have the freedom to use cannabis for personal consumption,” said Steven Vancore, a spokesman for Trulieve. “We are supporting this effort because we believe that Florida adults should enjoy that same freedom.”

That’s exactly the kind of campaign messaging that will likely prove hard to counter in the “Free State of Florida.”

But for Trulieve, freedom isn’t just about recreation, either. It carries significant criminal and social justice impacts. Legalization would reduce crime and law enforcement costs, while reducing the burden of petty drug cases on our already jammed court systems, allowing resources to be redirected to more pressing criminal matters. And that’s an area where Trulieve has been active, pushing in already legal states for expungements of marijuana-related drug convictions – an issue that automatically attracts large voting blocks of people impacted by the issue.

Finally, fully legal marijuana is every government bureaucrat’s dream: endless regulation of marijuana cultivation, production, transportation, distribution and consumption to ensure consistent consumer and industrial safety. From facility audits to new regulations on consumption that vary by industry, there’s no area of professional life that couldn’t be touched by the long arm of local and state cannabis licensure and regulation.

The questions surrounding the issue are complex and worthy of debate, and the time to have that debate should be sooner, rather than later. But, so far, at least, only a handful of Florida leaders appear to be thinking about the long-term ramifications of legalization, meanwhile Trulieve is doing all it can to make the outcome inevitable.

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