Writers like Carl Hiaasen have made entire careers pointing to the corruption and absurdity that too often define Florida’s brand of government. But, despite our frequent failings, there have been a few bright shining moments when Floridians could hold their heads high and point with pride to the innovations of their public officials. On rare occasion there has been a virtuous confluence of visionary leadership and powerful public sentiment that have propelled the Sunshine State onto the national stage as a model for other states to follow.
Whether it’s accountability in education, the buying and protection of environmentally sensitive lands, or transparency in government, Florida has led on issues with national implications. Our state has this opportunity once again in the burgeoning movement of medical marijuana regulation. We need to get it right this time because Florida, at this very moment, is uniquely positioned to become the national model for producing and dispensing this stigmatized class of potentially lifesaving drugs.
In a nutshell, here’s what makes Florida unique: It is the only large-population state that is striving to centralize, professionalize, and elevate what is usually a highly fragmented and — let’s be honest here — too often sketchy industry. Some states with small populations like Connecticut get it mostly right, but the diminutive stature of the state tends to trivialize its regulatory accomplishments. And then there are states like California with impressively large and diverse populations but with a disastrously fragmented medical marijuana industry.
If we do this thing right, Florida can stand alone as the only state with a large and diverse citizenry that treated medical marijuana and the industry that underlies it as a serious subject that was regulated for the benefits of participants at every level.
There are currently 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow some form of medical marijuana to be dispensed, and two states, Colorado and Washington, also allow for recreational use of the drug. In regulating marijuana, there is a critical decision branch that each state confronts: Do you allow the drug to be grown and dispensed by essentially an unlimited number of people, or do you tightly limit the number of growers and dispensaries in order to exert more governmental oversight of the process? Although medical marijuana has been allowed in the states a relatively short period of time, the verdict is in. In those states where there is not a tight limit on the number of growers and dispensers, the system is chaotic, unreliable, and often corrupt. On the other hand, in those states with a tightly limited and regulated number of growers and dispensers, the citizens are well served.
Let’s look at California, a state almost 800 miles long with the largest population in the United States; a diverse mass of humanity that exceeds 38 million people. California has pursued the regulatory strategy of virtually unlimited licensing for marijuana dispensaries, and the result has predictably been a highly fragmented and uneven market. Despite its enormous size, the largest medical marijuana dispensary chain in California employs fewer than 200 people. California’s regulatory framework has created a patchwork quilt of mom and pop dispensaries that sometimes exist along the shadowy line of legality, and the end users, everyday Californians, are poorly served by this arrangement.
Connecticut provides a useful contrast to California. Connecticut has issued only four grower licenses and six dispenser licenses, and in this state the industry is stable and citizens are well served with uniformly high quality and reasonably priced medical marijuana that is tightly regulated by the state. Safe drugs are produced, citizens are protected, and taxes are collected. It is a productive and predictable pathway that loops from government to the private sector and back again, and ultimately this benefits each citizen.
Canada offers a useful cautionary tale for Florida. In Canada the regulation of medical marijuana is a national initiative, and when it was first legalized the national government adopted a laissez faire approach. There was no limit on the number of growers and dispensers, and our neighbors to the north quickly descended into a maelstrom of small-time marijuana dealers who were unreliably dispensing an adulterated and sometimes potentially dangerous product. Executing a sharp reversal, the Canadian government redesigned its regulatory system and limited the number of grower licenses to a total of twenty highly regulated licensees throughout the entire nation. The quality and accountability of the production and distribution chain immediately increased, and today the Canadian system is a model for the rest of the world. One need only read about the commercial success of Canadian companies like Tweed to grasp the potential for creating jobs, revitalizing towns, and better meeting the medical needs of Floridians.
Florida has the opportunity to learn from mistakes and successes of governments that have ventured before it into the arena of marijuana regulation.
The Florida legislature already demonstrated its wisdom by limiting the number of dispensary licenses to five, and it needs to hold fast at that number. By limiting the number of licensees (but not the location or number of retail outlets for each licensee), Florida government can ensure access to the needed drug by ill patients and competitively lower pricing. Simultaneously, it can ensure the quality of the drug could meet FDA-like standards for human use, and that the drug is kept secure and not diverted for illegal consumption. These licensees should be selected on the strength of their applications and not a random process like a lottery. With these assurances in place, Florida can attract capital and the best and brightest businesspeople from its own ranks and keep out the charlatans and hucksters who chase the promise of medical marijuana from state to state.
The Charlotte’s Web law sets us on the right path. The Florida Department of Health and the Florida legislature must now stay the course.