A worker weighs and packages marijuana at a Cresco Labs cultivation facility in Indiantown, Florida. (John McCall/ South Florida Sun Sentinel/ TNS)
By Cindy Krischer Goodman
South Florida Sun Sentinel /TNS Feb 24, 2023
FORT LAUDERDALE — Outside the grocery store, farmer’s market and outdoor festivals, solicitors carry clipboards and urge Floridians to sign their petitions.
The multimillion-dollar movement pushes forward in Florida to allow voters to decide whether to make recreational use of marijuana legal in 2024. Behind the push are big players in the cannabis industry who already cater to the 788,297 people in Florida with medical marijuana cards The multistate cannabis operator Trulieve has been a major contributor, giving $5.5 million to the “Smart & Safe Florida” political committee spearheading the petition drive.
Legalizing recreational marijuana is a high-stakes initiative that comes as Florida is poised to award cannabis-growing licenses to another 22 companies in April, adding to the 22 currently licensed operators.
“Florida is the largest medical marijuana market in the country,” said Cris Rivera, Florida Regional President, Cresco Labs, a cannabis company that operates 23 Sunnyside stores in Florida. “It’s a really, really great market. We have fantastic quality products and every assortment mix you can imagine.”
With marijuana production in the state poised to ramp up further, researchers are studying the risks. So far, research shows fake weed has made its way into the state, sickening or killing Floridians. The real stuff, which has medicinal benefits for some people, has health risks, too.
Will recreational marijuana soon be legal?
When Floridians vote for their next president in 2024, they also may have the chance to vote whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. As of 2022, 21 states already have legalized the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes.
The Smart & Safe Florida initiative to get legalized recreational marijuana on the November 2024 ballot already passed its first hurdle, collecting enough signatures to get the Florida Supreme Court to review the proposed to get the Florida Supreme Court to review the proposed constitutional amendment. If given the green light by the Supreme Court, the measure would still need hundreds of thousands more signatures to get onto the ballot.
In 2014, Florida voters approved making medical marijuana legal. The last few years have seen particularly big increases in demand — the number of people with medical cannabis cards jumped from about 65,310 cardholders in 2018 to nearly 789,000 in 2023.
“If it gets approved for recreational use, we are going to see a massive change from today’s numbers,” said Cresco Labs’ Rivera. “We are going from less than a million people that we are servicing to a population of 22 million people [in Florida], plus visitors to the state — estimates suggest 70 to 80 million people in addition to the people who live here are going to now have access to cannabis.”
As demand rises, so, too, does opportunity.
For the first time in five years, Florida state regulators said they will accept applications for up to 22 new medical marijuana licenses, doubling the size of the state’s industry. The state has allocated more funds for staffing for its Office of Medical Marijuana Use to keep up with a growing demand for medical marijuana.
Fake weed everywhere
Floridians are getting sick and even dying from synthetic cannabis, fake weed that has made its way into the state. It can come in the form of solids or oils and contain unpredictable contaminants.
In December 2021, more than 50 people in the Tampa Bay area were hospitalized with severe bleeding after smoking synthetic cannabis products that may have been laced with rat poison.
Synthetic weed is illegal in Florida, and Christopher Kimball, Florida’s Director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, told lawmakers last week it is not being dispensed from licensed facilities. Yet data shows synthetic cannabis increasingly has led to ER visits in Florida, and a new report says it was a factor in two thirds of cannabis deaths in the state between 2014 and 2020.
“It’s a real problem for the consumers,” said John Sullivan, executive vice president of government affairs for Cresco Labs. “What has happened because of the vagueness of the farm bill back in 2018 and interpretations of that, it’s created kind of a wild, wild west of unlicensed, untested, unregulated products flooding into states. A lot of local gas stations and cigarette shop are now carrying products that are unlicensed, untested and have real risk to consumers.”
One researcher says legalizing marijuana for adult use could curb some of the activity.
A review of National Poison Data System data collected between 2016 and 2019 found states with legalized recreational cannabis had 37% fewer poisoning reports for synthetic cannabinoids compared with states with restrictive laws.
Benefits vs. risk
Legally produced cannabis has its health risks, too.
Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing just released a statewide analysis that shows cannabis can be addictive and potentially cause harm.
Researchers looked at deaths in Florida associated with cannabis. They used Florida Department of Law Enforcement data from 2014 to 2020 and discovered 386 people died in Florida as a result of cannabis use, mostly as a result of car accidents.
“People need to know marijuana use is not 100% safe or therapeutic,” said Armiel Suriaga, Ph.D., senior author of the study and an assistant professor in FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “It affects the brain and can impair judgment,”
Suriaga said he also found about 12.6% of deaths in Florida from cannabis involved cardiovascular-related illnesses. “It can trigger a heart attack because marijuana can cause inflammation of the heart.”
William Checkley, who participated in that research on the health effects of recreational and therapeutic cannabis use, says a committee of experts found marijuana can help people with chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. But it is not without risk.
Checkley, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said his research also found a correlation with pot smoking and respiratory issues, and heavy users reported increased thoughts of suicide and depression.
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