In the latest election the voters of the state of Oregon agreed to decriminalize the possession of all once-illegal drugs in their state. Not long after, a bill passed the United States House of Representatives that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level. With the precedence now set, many lawmakers in Florida are weighing the pros and cons of bringing such a sweeping change in drug law to our state.
U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, spoke in favor of the federal bill prior to its passage. Author of the 2014 bill in the Florida legislature establishing the medical marijuana program, he was one of less than half a dozen Republicans to vote in favor of the bill alongside Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City.
Decriminalization of marijuana would have a very noticeable effect on Florida’s prison population if ever enacted. Numbers are far from clear for federal prisoners, but the FBI says 40 percent of all state and local drug arrests involved marijuana, and over 90 percent of those arrests were for possession of marijuana.
Florida has had a torrid relationship with the push for drug legalization in recent years. Four years ago voters approved of an amendment to the state constitution expanding upon the medical marijuana program, which was then only open for those using low-THC cannabis for treatment of children with severe epilepsy. However, since then less than two dozen permits have been issued.
Legalization advocates are planning a push to put an amendment to the Florida constitution up for consideration in the 2022 election that would legalize recreational marijuana use for those over the age of 21 and possessing less than 2.5 ounces of it. Some medical marijuana criticize the amendment though, as it doesn’t open up the market outside current licensed sellers, which would likely lower overall prices for marijuana products.
Another ballot initiative that may be on 2022’s ballot in Florida is a repeat of the 2020 referendum that would legalize growing marijuana by individuals. Though it did not prevail last year, experts say a referendum of some sort on marijuana legalization is likely to pass in the near future, as recent opinion polling shows that two thirds of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.
As it stands, Floridians stand to be given lengthy prison sentences if charged with possession of marijuana. After over 31 years in prison, a man was released last month after his conviction for trafficking marijuana was overturned on appeal. The 71-year-old man was sentenced to 90 years in prison in 1989, which was well in excess of judicial sentencing guidelines at the time.
Now free, the defendant was sentenced alongside his brother with the same penalty. He was released in 2013, but his brother remained imprisoned until his release was ordered by the appellate court. Originally slated for release this summer, the defendant was released ahead of schedule. However, his release was bittersweet, as his parents, wife, and son had all died while he was in prison. The newly-freed man plans to advocate for drug legalization in the coming years.