As Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services (and the only Democrat to win statewide office in 2018), Nikki Fried is responsible for regulating cannabis in all its legal applications in Florida. That means not just overseeing medical marijuana usage but also the sale and manufacture of CBD products and agricultural and industrial hemp, as well as working with the Legislature to make and enforce policy. She'll be helped by Holly Bell, the state's (and possibly the nation's) first cannabis director. Bell has a banking background, not an agricultural or marijuana-related one, so there was some disappointment over the choice. But Fried's expectations are high that Bell will be able to untangle the mess around financial services for dispensaries and nurseries, who, due to federal banking regulations, often have to deal completely in cash.
Orlando Weekly spoke to Fried about the state of the state in terms of legal marijuana usage and possible future policy. Here's our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
OW: Commissioner Fried, with smokable medical marijuana finally getting the OK, what's the next major issue looming over Floridian medical marijuana patients?
NF: One of the most looming issues is access to healthcare. Right now all these patients are having to dole out essentially a thousand dollars a month for their medicine. That's on top of the amount it costs to go to the doctor and then actually getting your card from the Department of Health. So these high costs at the dispensaries – [it's] still more [expensive] than the black market. To be able to get them access to health insurance to cover the copays and annual visits will be a total game-changer if we can get that accomplished here in the state.
Why do you think smokable medical marijuana is a crucial option for patients in Florida?
I've talked to so many patients across the state, across the country, who've had their immune system shocked, and are looking for the purest forms of delivery. Giving them the access to smoke flower or to choose – to basically make sure it's in its purest form – is really helping a lot of patients.
This is very crucial for a lot of patients. And to be quite honest, for some of our senior citizens, this is complicated. This new generation, we all created vape pens and shatter and all these different types of things, and when you're 65 years old, look, all you know and understand is flower. And so making sure that they're comfortable with their medicine is also very crucial.
My editor and I were actually talking about that, how some people could kind of just bow out because it intimidates them – all the options.
Yep, absolutely. I've gone into dispensaries and I obviously am extremely knowledgable of all the different products and everything, and I'll walk into a dispensary and I get confused, you know? What's the different between ratios and different strands, hybrids and – you know, it's just different and it's hard to tell somebody who's a little bit older to try it, to try new stuff. And they're just like, "Well, I'm used to smoking. Why can't I just have my flower?" [Editor's note: If you, too, find yourself somewhat bewildered by the new terminology and gadgetry, take a look at our weed glossary]
Do you expect a similar confusion among lawmakers for future changes to medical or even legalization initiatives?
You know, whenever you bring new technologies or new types of things into our state, everybody's a little bit hesitant. For those of us who live, breathe and survive in our industry, we think it's common sense. But if you're not familiar with medical marijuana, or you're not familiar with hemp, you're going to be apprehensive to make sure that people aren't pulling a fast one over you, and just aren't as comfortable with the conversation.
But any time anything new comes, especially with public health – that's scary to some people, and of course there's all these industries fighting in the big hospitals and, you know, that don't want cannabis as an option. Any time you have a new technology or a new industry coming into a state you're always going to get those battles.
Speaking of battles – the THC cap that lawmakers are currently attempting to pass. How could that go wrong for patients?
It could go very wrong. Are you talking about the 10 percent cap [for flower]?
You know, the reality is that there is very few, if any, growers out there that grow the flower at 10 percent THC. So you're going to basically take all of the flower that's currently been grown, or is in the process of being sold in our state, and take it off the shelves.
And to be quite honest, 10 percent THC is not going to be useful for those patients. Patients that are suffering from debilitating conditions, that are using flower and using medical marijuana as an alternative medicine, they need to make sure that they have enough access, and having a 10 percent cap really does preclude them from wanting to actually buy flower.
And if they were to take it off the shelf, what would they do with it? Just a controlled burn, or how does that work?
No, what they would do is they would then take the current flower and make it into other products, whether it's tincture or ... process them through edibles, or another kind of vape pen. So they would use for it other things, they just wouldn't be able to sell it as whole flower.
OK, that makes sense. Do you think expanded access to the state's medical marijuana program could help combat Florida's opioid epidemic?
Without a doubt. We've seen statistics all across the country that any time that there's a medical marijuana program, or even when they get to legalization, there's a 20 to 30 percent decrease in opioid overdoses. So I think for us here in our state, for these patients that are taking opiates and are addicted to it, [if they] have another alternative relief for their pain, we'll see that same drastic decrease as well. We need to get it on the registry we're allowed to [prescribe MMJ] to people who are suffering from the opiate epidemic.
Given those same statistics, why aren't we seeing a more all-hands-on-deck effort from state lawmakers?
You know, that is a great question. I ask that every single day. [laughs] There's politics involved, unfortunately. And the problem is, in a legislative session, they're just apprehensive to file medical marijuana bills. So we're just not seeing a move to really alter or expand the program in the current legislative session. But that makes me motivated in fighting to make sure that we have those changes in future legislative sessions.
In your opinion, is there a path forward for legalization?
Not through the Legislature! My hope is that people understand across the state that 71 percent of us voted for medical marijuana and the Legislature continues to mess up the program upon implementation, and that hopefully [it can be put] on the ballot and go forward with that in a constitutional amendment. Or, we have been working really hard up in D.C. to get either declassification or reclassification of cannabis. So hopefully one of those two will unravel in the next five years.
So it's pretty much a game of hurry up and wait.
What sort of economic impact do you envision with the legalization of marijuana in Florida?
Tremendous. Colorado – when they were able to legalize a product that is able to be taxed, we've seen them gets hundreds of millions of dollars in taxable revenue that they're using for education, for affordable housing, for infrastructure, and the same thing could be here, too. You know, I've said this could be – between cannabis and hemp – this could be a $20-30 billion industry here in our state, and that's all taxable.
And I think there are some leadership in our Republican Legislature, like Sen. [Rob] Bradley, who have been a fighter for all of this, and it's been very frustrating to see our previous governor, Scott, just kind of stand in the way of the will of the people. So there are good leaders in the Legislature that we definitely need to commend on their effort. But we have to do a lot more work, though.
What inspired the decision to appoint a state director of cannabis?
You know, I really do see cannabis as the future of agriculture. One, we already oversee some parts of the medical marijuana program, between the edibles and pesticides and fertilizers. But also we have an obligation [to] make sure that there's a voice for the consumer and the patients and our state ... traveling the state to hear what's happening on the ground and advocating for changes, and then, once again, somebody to also help oversee the implementation and regulations of hemp here in our state.
Was the position modeled after another state position elsewhere?
I am not aware of any other state that has a cannabis director. There's obviously, in every government that has a cannabis program, there's somebody who is a regulator. But I don't know of a specific cannabis director, per se.
Where does Florida stand with CBD? Is it legal?
The problem is that right now, as we know, the 2018 Farm Bill allowed every state to create a hemp program. And we're really more geared towards the industrial side. The FDA has come out and said that they plan on regulating CBD across the country, and interstate commerce can start at that point.
The other problem is that in our laws, today, it says any derivative of the cannabis plant must be sold through one of our license-holders. This is why I'm trying really hard to push for legalization of hemp, including a hemp program here in our state. For clarification, the last thing we want is for our consumers to be defrauded by what's in the CBD product, whether it has THC, whether it has CBD in it. So my job is to make sure that our consumers get a product that they intended to buy for what's in there.
That's why getting hemp passed here during the session is so vital, to make sure that we create a marketplace that is safe for our consumers.
What type of impact do you envision for hemp on Florida's agricultural industry?
Oh, this is going to be a tremendous opportunity. So many of our farmers have been suffering for so long, between NAFTA, which creates unfair trade practices that's been hurting a lot of our local farmers and smaller farmers, to hurricanes that have really decimated our citrus industry, from Irma the last year to Michael in the Panhandle this past year, to citrus greening. So giving our farmers another alternative crop is going to be essential for them moving forward and keeping agriculture as part of the landscape for our state.
Have you seen many former citrus farmers, particularly in Central Florida, shift towards hemp, instead?
A lot of them have shown significant interest. We have been contacted by almost, I feel like, almost every farmer in our state, which – there are 47,000 of them. [laughs] But we have definitely been contacted by a significant amount of farmers across the state, who are very intrigued that we're learning more and hopeful that this is another alternative crop for their land.