Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks at a press conference on Oct. 10, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried on Monday called upon Gov. Ron DeSantis to pardon people for simple possession of cannabis during the scheduled December clemency meeting, in line with a directive from President Joe Biden last week.
On Thursday, Biden announced that his administration would move towards ending the United States’ “failed approach” to regulating cannabis, including pardoning federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, and urged governors to do the same for state offenses.
On Monday, Fried put the spotlight on DeSantis’ role during a press conference in Tallahassee.
“So let me be very clear. Gov. DeSantis, we need to do exactly that,” she said.
“Our next clemency meeting on Dec 14,” Fried continued. “So, today I am asking, and I am sending a formal letter, asking that this issue be included and our next clemency board agenda.”
DeSantis chairs the state clemency board, which includes Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Fried.
Marijuana and cannabis criminalization has long had racial implications, with some civil rights groups pointing to evidence that Black individuals and other people of color are unfairly targeted compared to their white counterparts. A 2020 report by the ACLU suggests that Black people have been 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.
During the press conference, Fried pulled from her previous experience as a public defender:
“This is what I saw every single day as a public defender in Alachua County — vast disparities in our criminal justice system. Far too many were young Black men and women who would go on too-long stretches of time in prison for simple marijuana possession,” she said.
In Fried’s letter to DeSantis, she emphasized that criminalization of marijuana possession leads to long-lasting consequences, including limiting employment, housing, and educational opportunities.
“As governor, you have the unique ability to unilaterally address the systemic wrongs perpetuated upon thousands of Floridians through your pardon power and steer the conversation towards more fruitful reform,” she wrote to DeSantis.
In last week’s announcement, Biden also called for U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review how marijuana is classified under federal law.
“Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances,” Biden said, noting that the classification puts marijuana in the same category as heroin and higher than fentanyl and methamphetamine.
In the same announcement, he urged to state governors like DeSantis to consider pardoning simple possession of marijuana.
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said. He clarified that limitations on trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales of cannabis should stay in place.
With the 2022 gubernatorial election around the corner, marijuana has had a less-emphasized role in comparison to policy issues such as abortion, education, and LGBTQ+ concerns.
DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial election, former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, has previously vowed to support legalizing recreational marijuana.
As for DeSantis, his stance is less clear. In January, Politico reported that DeSantis was in support of decriminalizing marijuana but maybe not be in favor of legalizing it completely for recreational use.
The Phoenix has reached out to the governor’s office for his thoughts and is awaiting response.
Fried, on the other hand, has been a long-time advocate for reworking marijuana laws. Before becoming Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Fried lobbied for the marijuana industry.
In August, she criticized state health officials for suddenly implementing dose restrictions with little warning for medical marijuana users, the Phoenix previously reported.
In 2016, a supermajority of Floridians voted to approve medical marijuana legalization for medical reasons.
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