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Florida’s US Senate Candidates Clash On Medical Marijuana

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In this year’s close U.S. Senate race in Florida, marijuana is playing a mostly sidelined role so far as voters in the key swing state decide between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited out of his current job.

But among the two candidates, the winner of which could help determine which party controls the Senate next year, there are sharp disagreements about some aspects of marijuana policy.

Florida voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, in the fifth year of Scott’s term. The governor himself has not been a supporter, and his administration continues to fight efforts to allow patients to consume medical marijuana in smokeable form.

Despite 71 percent voter approval for the initiative, the Florida legislature limited the scope of medical cannabis to oils, tinctures, sprays and edibles—a move that was met with resistance from activists like attorney John Morgan, who largely funded the legalization effort and later supported legal action against the state on behalf of a small handful of patients and organizations, claiming the restrictions were unconstitutional.

Morgan urged Scott to drop his appeal in the smokable marijuana case, suggesting that he would lose the Senate race if he kept up the fight, and that if he did indeed drop it, he’d gain “five points overnight.”

Scott’s “boneheaded decision” to appeal the smokable marijuana case even garnered criticism from Trump ally Roger Stone, calling it a “waste of taxpayers’ money” likely to “cost him Republican votes [and] hurt him in the Senate race.”

And Congressman Matt Gaetz, also a Republican, said the decision was “neither compassionate nor conservative.”

Meanwhile, Scott had been defensive of his administration’s efforts to implement medical cannabis, even before the lawsuit ruling: “The Department of Health is implementing Amendment 2,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to streamline the process and work through this process… As you all know, this is a new process and they’re working very hard.”

That said, the governor himself had taken a stand against the state’s medical cannabis initiative at the ballot box. “I voted against it,” Scott said. “I believe people should have access to any drugs they need or anything they need, but I think it ought to go through the legislative process.”

He also vetoed research funding to study the effects of medical marijuana. Explaining his, decision, Scott also said that the University of Florida and the Moffitt Cancer Center already had enough of their own money to fund the research on their own.

In 2014, Scott signed into law a limited low-THC medical cannabis program.

“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative,” he said at the time, referring to a more comprehensive medical marijuana measure that went on to a narrow defeat at the ballot box that year. “But, having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path and I would personally vote against it.”

Two years later, voters approved a similar initiative.

For his part, Nelson has positioned himself in direct opposition to Scott, stating that doctors should be able to recommend smokable cannabis to patients. “I don’t want a government or a politician to get in the way of a doctor recommending what should be the treatment, the medical treatment for the doctor’s patient,” he said. “Of course” that includes smokable cannabis, he added. “That’s what the constitutional amendment was.”

However, while he supports medical marijuana (and indeed voted for the state’s ballot measure to legalize it), Nelson remains opposed to broader recreational legalization. When asked if he agreed with the growing number of Democrats aiming to reform cannabis policy, he answered: “That’s a fancy way that you’ve asked me ‘Do I agree with recreational marijuana’, and the answer is no.”

His opposition to legalizing cannabis seems to be rooted in the belief that, outside a medical context for “desperate” patients, the drug is otherwise harmful.

“Just listen to the personal testimonies of people that nothing will help them as they are dying and marijuana gives them comfort and relieves the pain,” he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Nelson began his political career in 1972, when he joined the Florida House of Representatives. He later served more than a decade in the U.S. House and, in 2001, became a U.S senator. Over time, he has maintained a reputation as one of Congress’s more moderate Democrats.

While Nelson has said that cannabis legalization should be “left to the states,” he hasn’t added his name as a cosponsor to a single piece of marijuana reform legislation during his decades on Capitol Hill.  He did, however, vote on the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp for research purposes.

Nelson has, however, signed onto a small handful of bills geared toward supporting drug war-style initiatives. Among them were a 1990 resolution to “take ongoing responsibility in the drug war by incorporating the issue of the illegal narcotics trade as an integral component of United States trade policy.”

While that legislation can be contextualized amidst the height of 1980s drug war propaganda, Nelson has nonetheless done little to modernize his attitude toward prohibition in the years since.

Legalization advocacy group NORML gave Nelson a B grade in its congressional scorecard, while Scott earned a D+ in the organization’s gubernatorial rankings.

Neither the incumbent senator nor his challenger have taken strong stances in support of marijuana law reform— though perhaps the upcoming election will encourage them to, in one direction or another.

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Madison is a New York/Los Angeles-based journalist on the cannabis beat. You can read her work on Herb, Rolling Stone, Merry Jane, and elsewhere.

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