Medical marijuana economy hits new highs in Florida, dispensaries expand to Orlando

Video by Caitlin Pickens and Eddie Messel.

By Daniella Medina / University of Central Florida

Even though Florida only legalized medical marijuana three years ago, the economic benefits continue to roll in, despite challenges and misconceptions, a panel of cannabis experts said Tuesday at the Florida Priorities Summit.

Florida ranks second in the nation for medical marijuana industry growth, according to Marijuana Business Daily, and is ranked as the third most populous state with a program for over 250,000 qualified patients, according to the Florida Department of Health.

But that’s only the start, said panelist Nikki Fried, Florida agriculture commissioner who campaigned on a platform that stressed easier access to medical marijuana.

The first storefront dispensary near the University of Central Florida campus, operated by MedMen, will be opening before the end of the year. MedMen operates dispensaries all over the country, and opened its first Orlando location on International Drive on Oct. 25, one of seven it has in Florida.

Having a location near a college campus — the UCF dispensary will be on University Boulevard — has health, economic and safety benefits, Fried said.

Fried noted that college students already have easy access to bars near campus, and access to medical marijuana doesn’t change that, as long as it isn’t abused.

“You don’t hear violence associated with marijuana — you hear it more with the alcohol,” Fried said. “So if we could curtail the alcohol problems we see on campus, that might be the good balancing.”

The growth of the medical cannabis business can translate to real economic growth, Fried said, including an influx of jobs, real estate and tourism, according to Fried.

Despite the economic benefits that hit when medical marijuana dispensaries are established in an area, there have been concerns that an increase in crime would come along with it — someone is walking into a business with cash and walking out with a controlled substance, Fried said.

However, the dispensaries opening across the state shatter those preconceived notions when you walk in or drive by them. Fried compared the sharp storefronts and intricate interiors of some dispensaries to a combination of Starbucks, Ikea and Apple.

Fried said the community’s realization that a dispensary is not an eyesore allows the real estate industry to flourish around it, bringing new customers to older buildings, strip malls and stand-alone buildings like banks and fast food restaurants.

The business has the potential to provide a boost to Florida’s top industry — tourism — particularly if Florida expands to recreational marijuana use.

While medical pot is not taxed, recreational would be. And the panelists agreed that legalization is just a matter of time.

“Tax it, don’t tax it too much, ‘cause you’ll push it to the black market,” said Matthew Ginder, senior counsel in the Cannabis Law practice group at Greenspoon Marder.

Fried said taxes could also lead to more jobs, more opportunities for education, more housing options among other economic benefits like reducing opiate addiction, cheaper healthcare and criminal justice reform.

There is already a push for recreational, led by MedMen along with another marijuana distribution company, Surterra, who are on the forefront of a constitutional amendment campaign, Make It Legal.

Make It Legal is currently seeking voter approval for the recreational marijuana amendment which needs approval from the Florida Supreme Court and 60% of voters in 2020 in order to be passed.

Affordable housing crisis affects big Florida cities including Orlando and Miami

Video by Eddie Messel and Caitlin Pickens of University of Central Florida

By Daniella Medina

University of Central Florida

Influencers, decision makers and voters from across Florida met Monday to discuss key topics and policy issues pertaining to the state and its constituents — among these the affordable housing crisis. 

The discussion was part of the second annual Florida Priorities Summit Influencer Series, a two-day event presented by the Miami Herald Monday and Tuesday at the University of Miami.

The Rev. Dr. David Swanson, a summit participant from Orlando, said the state as a whole is “exceedingly far behind” in solving the affordable housing crisis because it is impossible to know how the Florida Legislature is using the funds dedicated to affordable housing in the Sadowski Affordable Housing Act — which have been redirected from housing to general revenue. 

The Orange County Housing For All task force approved a draft Friday for a 10-year action plan dedicated to finding a solution for the affordable housing crisis affecting the city of Orlando. The plan seeks to remove regulatory barriers and find new sources of funding while engaging the community and providing opportunities and access to those in the region. 

The plan, drafted by a 38-member task force created earlier this year by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, calls for community-based solutions to preserve and create 30,300 housing units by 2030 if the plan is approved in December by county commissioners. 

Housing For All plans to establish a $160 million housing trust fund in addition to a $10 million annual commitment from the county and private contributions. 

The plan seeks to address the issues of the region’s growing population. The Orlando Economic Partnership’s 2030 report predicts that Central Florida will add about 1,500 people every week. 

However, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Orlando metro area ranks among the worst as an area with the most severe shortages of rental homes affordable to extremely low income households. There are 13 affordable and available rental homes per every 100 extremely low-income households. Orlando is also ranked among the most expensive housing markets as well, according to RealtyHop. 

The commission is a “policy advocacy agency that seeks to look at building a system of care in the Central Florida region that makes sure that homelessness is rare, brief and one time for anyone who may be experiencing it,” said Swanson, who serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Chronic Homelessness and chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.

Swanson, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, said that Orange County’s faith-based community can play a large role in solving homelessness. 

“When it comes to homelessness, the government can’t solve homelessness. The private sector can’t solve homelessness by themselves. You need the government — they have to create the policies,” Swanson said. “It’s the faith community that creates, for the larger population, a moral imperative — it actually matters how we treat people who don’t have as much as we do.” 

With the Christian population in Orlando of over half a million people, Swanson said they are already incentivized to assist in solving the affordable housing crisis because of their duty to help other people. 

Furthermore, he said churches are able to provide more than just money. They provide human capital — educators, job creators and legal services — to surround families and households and help them thrive again.  

Swanson said he believes Orange County’s affordable housing plan has potential to work with its proposition of using tax incentives, public land and easing zoning restrictions. 

But, he said homelessness will always be a problem. 

“Housing and affordable housing and homelessness — you never cut the ribbon. It’s always a problem and you have to create a sustainable source of funding,” Swanson said. 

Among alternatives for generating streams of revenue are community generosity and corporate philanthropy. Kerry-Ann Royes, president and chief executive officer of YWCA Miami, attests to this. 

The YWCA is a social justice organization that pledges to eliminate racism and empower women while promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, Royes said. 

Royes said everything related to the economic prosperity of a community is intertwined — housing, jobs, education and healthcare. Therefore, it’s important for the faith-based and nonprofit communities to come together to bridge the gap between low-income families and affordable housing. 

“The faith-based community and the nonprofit community are stepping up and coming to the plate to find solutions that have to do with housing more and more because it’s very disproportionately affecting communities that we serve,” Royes said. 

Royes and the YWCA pride themselves in being a “voice for the community” by advocating for its citizens with problem solvers and statewide leaders. 

“Some of what we talked about [at the summit] was asking our legislators what are some of the creative incentives or innovations in housing that we need to think about,” Royes said. “Not just for the demand today but for the future demand and, frankly, some of the economic growth we want in our state.” 

She stressed the importance of finding creative solutions to accommodate the influx of people moving to the region. 

Annie Lord, executive director at Miami Homes for All, an organization seeking to address homelessness and the affordable housing crisis in Miami-Dade County through policy advocacy and building coalitions, led the summit group discussion to help find creative solutions needed to solve Florida’s affordable housing crisis. 

Among the solutions agreed upon were fully utilizing Sadowski funds, passing legislation that creates incentives for affordable housing, including property tax abatements and incentives for mixed-income and mixed-use communities, and amending a Florida House bill that would increase tax exemption transparency and accountability, to strike any vague language about how the money can or cannot be spent.

This is how Florida can begin to ease its homelessness problem.

“There are always going to be homeless people, there’s always going to be housing challenges until we fix low wages, transportation, education and all the infrastructure problems,” Swanson said. “To say that we’re going to end homelessness — you’re never going to get there. But we can create a system that works so you see fewer and fewer people on the street and there are fewer people suffering.”