Two years ago after a super majority vote, Florida joined many other states (now 32) by mandating a medical marijuana program. Two years and several lawsuits later, the program is up and running with over 175,000 patients registered medical cannabis patients. It is predicted that this number will eventually grow to close to a million.
Floridians should be considering at this point, what would could be expected if Florida followed in the steps of 9 other states and legalized cannabis for responsible adult use. Polls show that the majority of Floridians are in favor of this and more than likely we will see something to vote on in 2020. What might we expect if Florida legalized cannabis for responsible adult use? One state that seems to be in the spotlight these last several years is Colorado, which legalized cannabis in 2012. The population of Colorado is 5.6 million people. Florida’s population is about 21 million people, or about 4 times as big. Both states depend heavily on tourism and agriculture.
What would be the financial benefit to the State? Well, in Colorado they tax their non-medical cannabis sales with a 15% sales tax and a 15% excise tax for a total of 30%. Since legalizing in 2012, the revenues have been growing every year. In 2017, Colorado made about $250 million dollars in cannabis tax revenues, not including any additional local taxes. Most of this money comes from tourists, many of whom may have been attracted by the novelty of legal cannabis. So, if Florida legalized cannabis and taxed it in a similar way, we might expect increase tax revenue 4 x that amount, about a billion dollars. A billion dollars of extra tax revenues happily paid by tourists who visit Florida. To put this in perspective, if this money were divided equally between Florida’s 67 counties, it would come to about $15,000,000 a year for each of Floridas 67 counties.
What would we do with these extra millions of dollars? In Colorado, most of it goes for education including construction and expanding school support services, and mental health services such as addiction treatment, and for affordable housing. Regulation and law enforcement get their share too. Also, municipalities can impose their own taxes also. For instance, the city of Denver has a 1% city tax which covers the cost their public transportation.
I have visited Colorado frequently most my life and I can personally say that when you drive into the state, you can see the new money. School and road construction, old mining towns brought back to life, plus, there are millions of new jobs in the growing, processing and selling of cannabis. Couldn’t Citrus County and Florida in general benefit from this?
States that have legalized cannabis for responsible adult use have seen an unexpected decrease in drug overdose deaths, about 25% less. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, in Florida, we lost about 5000 people to drug overdose deaths in 2016. Most of these were people who started on legal prescription narcotics and then became addicted. They don’t want to be addicted and if cannabis is readily available, they will use this instead. Over 14 Floridians die every day from drug overdose and 25% of them statistically would not have died if a non-lethal drug, marijuana, would have been legally available to them.
Cannabis has been used by people for over 3000 years and has gained the reputation for making people mellow and calm. Surprisingly, there are some studies now questioning whether it may lead to violent behavior but these studies are inconclusive and in fact I don’t believe this is true. One thing that is true, according to The Guardian 2018, there has been a sharp reduction in violent crime in states bordering Mexico that have legalized cannabis. As can be expected, legalization puts the drug cartels out of business. Contrast this to alcohol which is well known as a precursor to aggressive behavior, domestic violence and highway deaths.
Also, up for debate is whether cannabis can be implicated with increase in car accidents. The insurance Institute of Highway Safety filed a report in 2017 that looked at Colorado, Oregon, and Washington to see if they had any changes in highway accidents and concluded that there was a very small increase of 3% in accidents after legalizing cannabis. Almost at the same time The American of Public Health published a study showing no increase in highway fatalities in Colorado and Washington after legalization. So the jury is still out on this question, but right now the conclusion is that there may be a slight uptick in minor accidents, but not deadly crashes.
It’s really hard to even attribute whether cannabis was a factor in any particular accident because unlike alcohol, there is no way to test a driver for being under the influence because THC stays in your system for many weeks after you use it, way beyond its psychoactive effect. In a state that allows recreational cannabis and decides to test drivers who have had accidents, the results don’t show, at all, whether it was a factor. Again, this is in contrast to alcohol where it is very easy to quantitatively test blood or breath alcohol to determine impairment.
Here’s a final reason to legalize cannabis in Florida. The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison than ANY other country. There was a huge increase of our prison population when the war on drugs “got serious” in the 1990s, and harsh sentences were imposed for drug offenses. Caught up in this are many marijuana users in the wrong place at the wrong time, usually minorities and poor kids… We have criminalized way too many people for possession of this harmless plant. So our country has 2.5 % of its population labeled as felons. Florida in particular has 10.4 % of its voting age citizens labeled as felons. Most of these are victimless crimes, many involving marijuana. These people have been in prison (which we pay for) and when they get out they can’t vote and it becomes extremely difficult to get a job. They end up back to their life of crime or on welfare of some sort. Many lives ruined. And guess who pays for the prisons, and the felons who can’t get jobs?
The forces against legislation are many. Some in law enforcement and the criminal justice system oppose legalization. In a speech given to a law enforcement audience last year in Nashville, Jeff Sessions bemoaned the fact that our prison population was down and “we have some space to put some people”. Many jobs, in fact a whole industry called “ the war on drugs” depended on cannabis as a card to play to arrest and imprison good people. There are also some very questionable property seizures justified by having cannabis illegal.
So stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting year. Florida has a lot to gain by following the lead taken by the 9 other progressive states that have legalized cannabis for recreational adult use. Please stay informed and keep an open mind.
Bob Goethe, MD
Dr Bob’s Compassion Clinic
Board Certified Anesthesiologist and Medical Cannabis Physician