A need for weed? Influencers weigh in on future of cannabis in Florida

Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, senior counsel at the Cannabis Law Practice Group of law firm Greenspoon Marder Matt Ginder and medical marijuana physician Dr. Ann-Marie Wong speak at the Florida Priorities Summit Nov. 19. Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh

By Dylan Hart

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried predicted that hemp could be a $30 billion industry in Florida. But obstacles to hemp and cannabis production still stand in the way.

Fried made her prognostication Tuesday at the Florida Priorities Summit, joining lawyer Matt Ginder and Dr. Ann-Marie Wong, a physician who specializes in medical marijuana, in a discussion of the future of cannabis in the state.

Florida voters legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2016. But restrictions are still in place that keep the industry from flourishing, the panelists said.

“You can break it down to issues of getting into the market,” said Ginder, senior counsel at the Cannabis Law Practice Group of law firm Greenspoon Marder. “Once you have the relevant licenses, there’s still a tremendous amount of issues operating your company.”

The cost of entering the business — from growing supply to processing facilities to retail stores — ranges from $20 to $30 million, Fried estimated.

On top of that, the competition is heavy, she said. There are already over a dozen businesses in Florida competing for a spot, and many already have connections with patients and doctors.

St. Petersburg has seven retail dispensaries, one less than a mile away from USF St. Petersburg.

Fried, who was a medical marijuana lobbyist before being elected to her position in 2018, promoted medical marijuana as a key campaign plank. She said that patient access is still limited due to fiscal concerns.

“It’s still a cash-only business,” and patients often have to “pay additionally out-of-pocket” to see a licensed physician, Fried said. “It’s a huge undertaking [for the industry], so there are no opportunities to lower the cost of medicine.”

But public opinion on dispensaries is turning around, Fried said. At first, many cities restricted them to warehouse or industrial areas. But as more have opened dispensaries — Fried compared their appearance to Starbucks, IKEA and Apple stores in terms of presentation — some strip malls have started to view them as attractions that bring foot traffic and new customers.

Regarding dispensaries near college campuses, Fried said that it was a positive to have access nearby for students, but made it clear that education was key to prevent abuse.

Although the panelists agreed that the regulations may be too strict in some areas, the state lacks the means to independently test medical pot for consistency, instead relying on the producers to self-test and report their findings. That needs to change, and requires action from the state Department of Health, Fried said.

But the panelists agreed that medical marijuana, hemp and eventually recreational pot have significant economic potential for Florida.

Fried said that the industrial hemp — used for everything from paper to packing material — is just as much of a potential boon to the economy as its medicinal or recreational byproducts.

The Department of Agriculture is “working hard” to push hemp as a new industry for the state, Fried said and that the program created by the department is intended to be a “completely open marketplace” for business owners to apply for a license. In the past, Fried has said that she wants Florida to be a leader in the country for hemp.

As for recreational marijuana, in Ginder’s view, the economic positives mean that expansion in Florida is inevitable.

“Tax it, don’t tax it too much or you push it into the black market,” Ginder said. “I think that’s the way to go. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Still, the panelists identified public apprehension surrounding cannabis.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is really fear of the unknown,” Ginder said. “I heard it a lot early on in Florida that we don’t want to look like Colorado. Colorado’s really not that bad.”

Wong said that, despite growing public support, there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding medical marijuana’s physical effects, even among medical patients. She said that only about 280,000 of Florida’s roughly 400,000 registered medical marijuana patients are active users.

Because of that, she raised concerns about limiting access to particular kinds of cannabis. She said that different patients prefer different methods: for example, patients over 55, who make up the majority of medical marijuana patients, prefer smokable cannabis because of its familiarity.

She added that cannabis is not strictly psychoactive as many people perceive, either.

“A lot of patients are able to work and go to school without getting high while at the same time preventing their symptoms,” Wong said. “That’s probably the biggest misconception — that if you use medical marijuana, you’re going to get high.”

The panel agreed that the state has a lot of work to do to ramp up production, as sufficient supply of varied types of cannabis is a major concern for the industry.

Economic impacts of climate change could be exponential in Florida

Influencers Steve Davis, senior ecologist at the Everglades Foundation; Xavier Cortada, an environmental artist and professor at the University of Miami; Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida; and Michelle Suskauer, an attorney at Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, P.A., on Monday at University of Miami. Photo by Dylan Hart / University of South Florida – St. Petersburg.

By Dylan Hart

University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

Before rising sea levels change the map of Florida, the economic impact of the coming catastrophe could slam Florida’s economy.

Four influencers met at the Miami Herald’s second Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami on Nov. 18 to discuss solutions to Florida’s environmental issues. Among those problems was the potential for an economic crisis in the state caused by climate change. 

“Long before the sea laps at somebody’s doorstep, real estate values are going to tank,” said Curtis Morgan, environmental editor at the Herald and assigned “topic expert” for the group. 

The group believes that because of impending environmental issues like sea level rise in Florida, confidence in the state’s real estate market could fall, leading to economic problems for state and local governments which could compound the issues presented by climate change. 

Without sufficient funding from a lucrative tourist economy and a willing tax base, the group said that infrastructure used to fight sea level rise — like drainage pumps and sewers — would be difficult to establish and maintain.

The influencers were quick to identify Florida’s current and future environmental struggles as a “climate crisis.”

“Just imagine what happens to our state and our tax base if all these counties are trying to address these issues at the same time that investors leave, the tax base is diminishing, flood insurance is going up,” said Xavier Cortada, an environmental artist and professor at the University of Miami. “Then we don’t have the money. We’re in a state of crisis.

“We’re not addressing the issue. We’re doing it on a tax structure that’s not sustainable for what’s to come — this is not business as usual, this is — we’ve got a problem.”

The seas are expected to increase two feet by 2060, which could swallow a lot of low-lying areas in the state. Another four feet is expected by 2100, which Morgan said would “remake the map of Florida.”

Climate scientists have identified South Florida, especially the Miami metropolitan area, as particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. But because Miami is a massive tax base for the state, the economic impacts of sea level rise could hit other parts of Florida as well.

On top of that, the possibility of large swathes of people moving inland from the coast to escape sea level rise could have devastating effects on Florida’s infrastructure and economy. It’s a difficult problem to address, Cortada said, because transforming low income areas to high density zones could create “climate gentrification.”

“There’s huge swathes cultural heritage and families … people who have a lot to lose by selling at today’s prices and having nowhere to go,” he said. “I don’t know how you reconcile that here.” 

The influencers identified algae blooms and red tide due to water pollution as another key issue which could impact tourism, agriculture and resources in Florida, thereby impacting the state economy.

“I think that, for lack of a better word, the tide is turning here,” said Steve Davis, senior ecologist at the Everglades Foundation. With massive real estate value loss in Lee and Martin counties over the summer of 2013 after algae blooms, Davis feels that there’s a recognition among citizens that there is a “cost of inaction.”  

“I think there’s a growing recognition from people that were on either side of this issue 10 years ago recognizing that we’ve got to do something,” Davis said.

Although the issues are clear, the influencers suggested solutions to the looming threats. Some were easier than others.

They suggested more appropriations from governments at all levels for research funding, regulation oversight and infrastructure solutions, but acknowledged that it will require legislators to take an interest in the issue.

“The science is really well understood,” said Julie Wraithmell, the chair of the group and executive director of Audubon Florida. “What we need now is action.”

The group was particularly concerned about increasing regulations as a solution, arguing unanimously that regulations on businesses in Florida are not sufficient to prevent environmental threats. 

“We have a state where regulation is a bad word,” Cortada said. “We’re trying to influence the legislature to understand that.” 

But education — that is, making citizens “environmentally literate” to understand the issues and how they might affect them — was just as impactful to the influencers as the money.

“All of these issues must be viewed through an environmental lens,” said Michelle Suskauer, an attorney at Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, P.A. “Housing, healthcare, transportation, the economy, education — all of them. All of these issues are interrelated and there has to be an environmental filter.”

Davis added: “The environment is everything. It’s our home.”