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Not on the DeSantis agenda for president: Decriminalizing cannabis

Not on the DeSantis agenda for president: Decriminalizing cannabis
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks June 9, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina. DeSantis spoke during the North Carolina GOP Old North State Dinner held during the North Carolina Republican party’s annual convention.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks June 9, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina. DeSantis spoke during the North Carolina GOP Old North State Dinner held during the North Carolina Republican party’s annual convention.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

  • DeSantis wouldn’t decriminalize pot as president, he said when asked about it by a South Carolina voter.
  • The Florida governor said last year that he didn’t like the “putrid” smell.
  • But DeSantis did help advance access to medical marijuana in Florida. 

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said legalizing cannabis would not be on his agenda if he’s elected to the White House in 2024. 

DeSantis, who did advance rules for medical cannabis use in Florida, said he wouldn’t pursue legalization nationally, expressing concerns about more young people accessing weed. 

The definitive statement from the 2024 candidate for president came after a voter, speaking on behalf of injured veterans, asked DeSantis to “please decriminalize marijuana in 2025” during a campaign event in Augusta, South Carolina, on Thursday. 

“I don’t think we would do that,” DeSantis responded. “But what I have done in Florida is we have a medical program through our Constitution that the voters did. Veterans in those situations in Florida are actually allowed access — it’s very controversial because obviously there are some people that abuse it and are usuing it recreationally.”

DeSantis argued that cannabis has become more powerful than it used to be, though many proponents of decriminalization say the drug should also be better regulated and labeled once it’s legal, in a similar way as alcohol, so that people understand how much they’re consuming.

As part of his response, the governor touted a schools initiative led by his wife, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis, that educates children about the consequences of drug use. US policy should be geared toward keeping children “clear of drugs,” he said, and asserted that legalization would make the drug more accessible to young people. 

Increased legalization of marijuana isn’t associated with a rise in youth use, a 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed.

But part of DeSantis’ response to the cannabis question focused on the US opioid epidemic, in which he pointed out that sometimes people think they’re using one drug — even illicit cannabis — only to learn, often too late, that it’s been laced with deadly fentanyl. 

“We have too many people using drugs in this country right now,” DeSantis said. “I think it hurts our workforce readiness, I think it hurts people’s ability to prosper in life.” 

Unlike cannabis policy, the opioid crisis was spurred along legally by doctors’ overly aggressive prescribing practices. The medical community heavily marketed pain medications and pushed regulators to approve widespread use. Companies eventually conceded — after lying about it for years — that the drug was addictive and being misused.

Patients abruptly lost access to painkiller medications and many turned to similar, illicit drugs such as heroin. Most-recent available data show 68,630 people died opioids in 2020. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a 2024 candidate for president, sued the Biden administration over higher ed accreditation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a 2024 candidate for president, and President Joe Biden.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo and

DeSantis has a mixed record on pot

Marijuana is illegal under federal law and is listed as a “Schedule 1” drug like heroin and meth, meaning justice agencies view it as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The Biden administration is reviewing the scheduling by the end of this year. 

President Joe Biden has previously expressed skepticism about all-out legalization but in October 2022 he pardoned all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. 

Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2016 that legalized cannabis use for medical reasons; the amendment had the support of more than 70% of voters.

Soon after becoming governor in 2019, DeSantis succesfully convinced the legislature to lift a state ban on the smokable form of the drug — a move meant to help the ballot initiative go into effect, and one that stunned the political class.

As a US Congressman, DeSantis voted in favor of spending bill amendments to protect state cannabis programs from federal interference. But the governor, who is also a Navy vet, voted against legislation that would allow doctors to recommend cannabis to patients. 

In Florida, proponents are working to bring a ballot measure before Florida voters in 2024 that would legalize cannabis for recreational reasons for people ages 21 and over. The initiative has secured enough signatures to be considered, though it faces other hurdles.

Before it can be on the ballot, it must first go before the state Supreme Court for review. It could also face a challenge from Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a DeSantis ally. 

Asked about cannabis support in 2022, DeSantis expressed some hesitancy on the issue and derided the “putrid” smell of the drug.

“I think a lot of those other areas that have done it you know have ended up regretting it,” DeSantis said in 2022, according to Politico. “I could not believe the pungent odor that you would see in some of these places and I don’t want to see that here. I want people to be able to breathe freely.”

At the time, former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — a leading proponent of legalization in Florida who now chairs the state’s Democratic Party — was running for the Democratic nomination for governor, though it ultimately went to former Charlie Crist, a former congressman. 

On Capitol Hill, the issue of cannabis legalization has become more bipartisan, particularly as a growing number of states have made it available medically and recreationally. Gallup polling finds 68% of voters, including half of Republicans, say marijuana use should be legal.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer met with Republicans this year to see what types of legalization measures might pass, including changes that would allow more banks to lend to cannabis businesses Marijuana Moment reported

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