Just two years ago, conservative justices appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly quashed efforts to move toward legalized recreational cannabis.
The court, which DeSantis has stacked with allies, issued three rulings in as many months that blocked the expansion of access in the state’s medical cannabis industry, one case relating to regulations and two to ballot initiatives. The rulings were in line with conservatives in Florida, including DeSantis and Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody, who broadly oppose pot legalization.
The current battle at hand is a ballot initiative that would legalize recreational cannabis — a newer version of the initiatives that were struck down two years ago by the judges of the state Supreme Court, including DeSantis loyalists.
This time, however, things might be different: Earlier this week, just days before dropping out of the Republican presidential primary, DeSantis conceded that the court was likely to approve the measure.
What’s different? Not DeSantis. Under the governor’s direction, Moody is fighting to keep the measure off the 2024 ballot.
Instead, what has shifted in the last two years is the appearance of new players who stand to benefit the most from the impact of legalization — especially the major GOP donors now invested in the state’s burgeoning legal cannabis industry. Several major Republican donors are invested in the tightly regulated medical cannabis companies that stand to reap windfall profits if recreational weed is legalized and they expand their businesses.
“Clearly there are economic motives here, including for Republican donors, to maintain the current system of vertical integration.”
Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who has helped lead the push to legalize weed, said Republicans are changing their tune for financial reasons.
“We should absolutely legalize recreational cannabis — my preference is for the system to be more open to everyday people and allow folks to grow their own cannabis versus have to purchase it from a distributor,” Eskamani told The Intercept. “Clearly there are economic motives here, including for Republican donors, to maintain the current system of vertical integration and legalize cannabis for recreational use.”
With GOP donors coming around to legal weed, Republican apparatchiks and even judges have shifted their stances. At least two justices close to DeSantis have signaled that they might rule against the governor’s position.
Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz, a DeSantis appointee, and Justice Charles Canady, whose wife is DeSantis’s pick to be the next Florida state House speaker, suggested in oral arguments in November that they disagreed with the state’s position.
Lawyers for the state had said the ballot language was misleading because it didn’t clarify that even if Florida legalized cannabis, it would still be illegal under federal law. The judges questioned the idea. Canady said he did not understand how a voter could be confused by the ballot language as proposed. “I’m baffled by the argument,” he said. “Maybe it’s just me.”
Grand Old Pot Industry
The owners of several of the state’s biggest medical cannabis companies have contributed to myriad of Republican causes. They have given to DeSantis’s campaigns, including his state PAC, before his presidential campaign converted it to a federal committee. And they have spread their money around the party, giving to state Republicans, including the state Republican Party, state legislative campaigns, and related committees.
Among the companies whose top officials are major GOP donors is Trulieve. One of Florida’s biggest cannabis companies and one of the first to receive a coveted medical license, Trulieve is also bankrolling the ballot initiative to legalize recreational weed.
Trulieve company officials have given at least $41 million to Republicans and Democrats in Florida since 2017 and at least $25,000 to DeSantis’s state PAC in 2020. They also donated $450,000 to the state Republican Party since 2019, including $125,000 five months before DeSantis’s 2022 reelection and another $100,000 in November.
According to disclosures, Trulieve is responsible for 97 percent — $38 million — of the total funding to the political action committee sponsoring the recreational ballot initiative, Smart & Safe Florida. The PAC is run by David Bellamy, a musician and half of the country-pop duo the Bellamy Brothers.
Like all the 22 tightly regulated medical cannabis companies licensed by the state, Trulieve is already expanding production to prepare should voters approve the ballot measure.
Surterra Wellness, another of the state’s biggest medical cannabis firms, has given at least $63,000 to DeSantis state PACs since his 2018 campaign. Surterra’s former chief executive officer, William Wrigley Jr. II, of the Wrigley candy empire, gave $100,000 to the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down in June, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. His firm, Palm Beach Enterprises, gave another $100,000 on the same day. (Surterra became part of Parallel, another cannabis firm, in 2019. Wrigley left Surterra in 2021.)
Hackney Nursery, another major cannabis company in the state, gave $10,000 to DeSantis’s state PAC in 2021. Other cannabis companies including Planet 13 Holdings, Curaleaf, Cresco Labs, and its subsidiary VidaCann have also given more than $112,000 to state Republicans and GOP committees since 2018.
In oral arguments last month, the state and the Florida Chamber of Commerce argued that Canady and other justices had ruled against similar cases. During the court’s last reviews of ballot language on the issue in 2021, Canady and Muñiz were among five justices who ruled to prohibit voters from considering a ballot measure on legal cannabis. They concluded that two previous measures included misleading language and should not appear on the ballot because they failed to comply with state law. Both justices said the language currently before the court was different.
The court will decide by April whether voters can consider the measure, which would decriminalize personal cannabis use for adults and allow the state to expand licensing beyond medical facilities to allow recreational companies to produce, distribute, and sell cannabis. If approved, it would go into effect in May 2025.
For now, medical sales are exempt from Florida’s sales tax, but the levy would apply if the state were to legalize recreational. According to a financial impact analysis published in July by the Financial Impact Estimating Conference, comprised of economists from DeSantis’s office and the state legislature, legalization would boost state sales tax revenue at least $200 million a year.