Could legalizing recreational marijuana help solve Florida’s COVID-19 budget shortfall?
A bipartisan pair of state lawmakers have a long-shot green stimulus plan for Florida’s gaping pandemic budget hole — legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana.
Pot enthusiasts shouldn’t get their hopes up too high, though.
Such an idea hasn’t caught fire in the conservative Florida Legislature, and Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes full legalization.
But Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Sen. Jeff Brandes think it deserves consideration given that lawmakers need to plug a $5.4 billion budget deficit over the next two years.
And they say cold-hard budget realities could sway people to support their cause.
“We can cut funding for health care, public schools, transportation or housing, or we can find new revenue opportunities and put all sources on the table, including legalizing cannabis for adult use,” said Smith, an Orlando Democrat. “We all know it is going to happen eventually. Why not be proactive?”
Smith, one of the Legislature’s most liberal members, has found an ally across the aisle in Brandes, a GOP senator from St. Petersburg with an independent streak. The two authored a legalization bill that didn’t get a hearing earlier this year.
They plan to introduce it again next session, when state lawmakers will be desperate for cash.
Brandes said sentiments are shifting in Florida.
“You are seeing a growing recognition that it is most likely inevitable, and if that is the case, we should generate that revenue and allow that freedom today,” he said.
The state hasn’t estimated how much revenue the legalization bill could generate for Florida. One 2015 analysis by a Duke University student projected the combined annual savings and increase in tax revenue would total $145.7 million annually in the short run and $285.5 million annually in the long run.
Colorado collected more than $1 billion in marijuana tax, license and fee revenue during its first five years of legalization, according to a June 2019 news release.
“I can’t think of a single issue that would help Gov. DeSantis rehabilitate his collapsed popularity in the state of Florida more than legalizing cannabis.” STATE REP. CARLOS GUILLERMO SMITH, D-ORLANDO
Local governments could also collect taxes from legal marijuana to help them deal with their budget problems, Smith said.
Opponents of legalization argue that new revenues would be offset by new public health and social costs — from more high school dropouts straining the safety net to higher health care expenses.
DeSantis doesn’t like the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Florida.
“Not while I’m governor,” DeSantis said in a June 2019 interview with North Florida’s WCTV television station. “I mean look, when that is introduced with teenagers and young people, I think it has a really detrimental effect to their well-being and their maturity.”
Cody McCloud, a DeSantis spokesman, reiterated in an email Wednesday that the governor “does not support legalizing recreational marijuana to offset budget shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Efforts to get a legalization referendum on Florida’s ballot in the 2020 election failed, but supporters are hoping to get the question before voters in 2022 or 2024. That would allow voters to bypass the Legislature.
Campaigns couldn’t meet the deadline for gathering the 766,200 voter signatures needed to qualify for the 2020 ballot.
Attorney General Ashley Moody opposed the initiative as well. Lawyers representing the Florida House, Senate and the Chamber of Commerce joined in opposition, arguing the initiative’s wording would mislead voters because marijuana would remain illegal under federal law.
If it gets on the ballot in the future, it would need 60% or more of the vote to pass.
About 71% of voters approved legalizing medical marijuana in Florida in 2016. The Florida Legislature, though, didn’t allow the drug to be smoked, instead limiting use to vape, topical and other applications.
DeSantis pushed the Legislature to approve smokable medical marijuana.
Medical marijuana is not subject to the state’s sales tax because it is classified as medicine, but recreational pot would be.
COVID-19 is lifting legalization efforts elsewhere.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf asked state legislators this week to legalize recreational marijuana as part of his economic recovery plan, citing the financial damage caused by COVID-19.
Political news from Central Florida and across the state.
He is proposing using the new revenue to support small businesses and fund restorative justice programs.RELATED: Finally, you’ll be able to buy medical marijuana the way you want it »
Smith said he thinks legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida would be an easy political win for DeSantis, who has faced criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I can’t think of a single issue that would help Gov. DeSantis rehabilitate his collapsed popularity in the state of Florida more than legalizing cannabis,” Smith said.
DeSantis, though, has defended his handling of the crisis, saying Florida did a better job of preventing deaths in nursing homes than Democratic-controlled New York.
Polls conducted before the pandemic have shown support for recreational marijuana in Florida as high as 65%.