Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has reaffirmed that he would not legalize marijuana if elected to the White House—arguing contrary to evidence that the reform has actually increased the size of the illicit market in Colorado.
During a campaign event in Iowa on Saturday, an attendee told DeSantis that she knows people whose children developed “cannabis-induced psychosis” and asked about whether he would move to legalize or reschedule cannabis under federal law if he became president. In response, the GOP contender made clear that he “would not legalize,” echoing anti-marijuana arguments he previously made in June.
“I think what’s happened is this stuff is very potent now. I think when young people get it, I think it’s a real, real problem, and I think it’s a lot different than stuff that people were using 30, 40 years ago,” DeSantis said. “I think when kids get on that, I think it causes a lot of problems and then, of course, you know, they can throw fentanyl in any of this stuff now.”
The candidate then pivoted to a broader discussion about the harms of substance misuse, stating that there’s an “open air market” for illicit drugs in San Francisco, and that society has “totally decayed” under policies that “really help these folks use drugs.”
DeSantis did acknowledge that Floridians have access to medical cannabis under a constitutional amendment that voters approved, saying that “we abide by that” but noting that “states have handled cannabis differently” and he would not “take action now to make it even more available.”
Florida voters may have the choice to expand access regardless of the governor’s position, as the state Supreme Court is currently considering whether a marijuana legalization initiative will appear on the state’s 2024 ballot.
“I would not do that,” DeSantis said on Saturday. “And the places that legalized it like Colorado and California, you know, the argument was—and honestly it wasn’t a crazy argument—’Look, we know people are going to use marijuana. It is a drug. If you legalize it, then you can tax it, regulate it, and it’s going to end up being safer for people.’”
“But what’s happened in Colorado, the black market for marijuana is bigger and more lucrative than it was before they did the legalization,” the governor said. “So the legalization I don’t think has worked.”
DeSantis didn’t provide data or cite any sourcing to support that argument. But private and government analyses have suggested that Colorado has in fact significantly reduced the influence of the illicit market in the decade since enacting legalization.
One report from Leafly and Whitney Economics that was released last year found that 99 percent of adult-use cannabis sales in Colorado take place within the regulated industry, indicating that legalization effectively transitioned people away from the illicit market.
Also, in July, the city of Denver published a report that showed local law enforcement processed a record low amount of illegal marijuana in 2022, which the government touted as evidence that legalization has largely achieved the goal of mitigating illicit sales.
DeSantis’s opposition to cannabis legalization—despite recent surveys showing increasing bipartisan support for the reform—is not new. But it’s part of the official’s scattered record on the issue that comes as he fights to maintain his second-place status in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
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On the policy side, for example, a bill DeSantis signed that took effect in Florida last month expanded medical marijuana advertising and manufacturing restrictions to prohibit any products or messages that promote “recreational” cannabis use, while adding more stringent eligibility requirements for workers in the industry.
He separately signed a measure in June that prohibits sober living facilities from allowing residents to possess or use medical marijuana, even if the patient is certified by a doctor to legally use cannabis therapeutically in accordance with state law. All other doctor-prescribed pharmaceutical medications may be permitted, however.
Also in June, the governor signed legislation banning sales of any consumable hemp products—including cannabis “chewing gum”—to people under 21, an expansion of an existing prohibition on young people being able to purchase smokable hemp.
Another bill that DeSantis signed in June did recently result in two Black farmers in Florida being awarded long-awaited medical marijuana business licenses.
In the meantime, advocates are closely following the state Supreme Court to see if the statewide marijuana legalization measure will make it on the 2024 ballot. The attorney general is urging the court to invalidate the initiatibe after activists turned in enough signatures to qualify it for ballot access.
Economic analysts from the Florida legislature and DeSantis’s office estimate that the legalization initiative would generate between $195.6 million and $431.3 million in new sales tax revenue annually if voters enact it. And those figures could increase considerably if lawmakers opted to impose an additional excise tax on cannabis transactions that’s similar to the ones in place in other legalized states.