Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried ran on a platform of what she called 'the three W’s': weapons, water and weed. Within months of her swearing in, it’s that last W that’s already generating a buzz around the state.
The Florida legislature passed a smokable medical marijuana bill that was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and state lawmakers are broadly expected to pass a law that would allow Florida to create an industrial hemp program for the first time.
Fried says the creation of a hemp program will lead to an “industrial revolution” in the state that can help bring relief to struggling farmers by offering access to a new cash crop, and in the process bring younger blood into an aging agricultural sector. She estimates the overall impact of the newly created hemp industry could stand to generate “20 to 30 billion” in annual revenue for the state.
WLRN recently sat down with Commissioner Fried to discuss her vision of an educational summit for medical marijuana in Hollywood. We talked about the prospects of industrial hemp for the state, and about the legal status of CBD, a chemical found in marijuana and hemp that is already widely available for purchase in the state.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
WLRN: How do you picture the outlook of Florida’s hemp industry over the next 5, 10 years?
FRIED: Industrial revolution. I see industrial hemp as not only the cure for our environmental issues -- it uses less water, less fertilizer, it’s biodegradable, it actually puts nutrients back into the soil -- it’s something that’s going to be amazing for our environment. Getting rid of plastics and styrofoam and other opportunities as an alternative crop for so many of our farmers that have been suffering from the citrus greening and Hurricane Michael and Irma, as well as the unfair trade practices from NAFTA.
There’s 25 to 35,000 usages of hemp, and to be able to utilize that and become an export from across not only the country, but the world -- we have the most amount of ports here in our state, and to be able to create end products that can be used across the world -- is just going to create an industrial revolution. I see this as almost the equivalent of the printing press.
It’s something that’s going to bring jobs here to our state economy. We’re looking at this to be a $20-30 billion industry in the next five to 10 years. That’s money that gets to go to our state for education, for affordable housing, for infrastructure, and it really is going to be something that is going to change the face of our state.
What are the main structural roadblocks that you see in trying to make this vision into a reality?
A lot of ... people talk about hemp and a lot of [the discussion] is immediately on the CBD side of things. [So we need to make] entrepreneurs and people think bigger than just CBD. That the industrial hemp side is where the play is. Who is going to be creating the relationships with McDonald’s and Burger King to replace their styrofoam? Who’s going to be reaching out to Dasani to do their water bottles? These are the type of things that -- I can only create the program. I’m building it, and hopefully they will come.
And bills need to be passed before that becomes a reality?
What the  Farm Bill did when it passed was allow each department of health and/or legislature to create a hemp program. And so that’s what we’re doing. We have been working with the legislature to have hemp bills passed to allow me the authorization to create the hemp program, both for the industrial and the human consumption side.
Per the last set of bills that I saw from the legislature, that gives me 90 days to create the program and create rules. So we already have our team starting to do some drafting and we’ll be having public hearings and testimony to make sure that this is as transparent, open as possible. I want everyone who wants to be involved in this program to have access to this program.
I’ve talked to the owners of several cannabis-based businesses across here in South Florida over the last couple weeks, and they feel that industrial hemp will bring more people back into the agricultural sector. Do you share that vision?
Absolutely. Some of the things that we’re seeing across the state is that this generation of agriculture, the farmers are third, fourth, fifth generations, and they’re struggling. They’re struggling because of all the issues that are happening in the state but also across the country, and in D.C. And so this next generation doesn’t want to work as hard as their parents who are just making ends meet, and are looking very hard at the very large developers that are coming in and wanting to buy their properties.
The beauty of our state is the agricultural land. Some of the most beautiful parts of our state are being preserved and conserved by our agriculture community. And to see them being sold off to development will break our hearts, and you can’t go back from that. So giving this next generation the excitement, giving them the tools to be successful in hemp, is exciting. It’s new, it’s fresh. They are very concerned about the environment, and knowing that they can do something that is going to contribute to the environment and protect it -- I think you’re going to see a lot of the next generation coming back and wanting to be a part of agriculture.
There’s been a little bit of ambiguity about whether selling CBD products is legal or illegal in the state. Can you help clarify that a little bit for us in your own view?
There’s two moving parts. The  Farm Bill authorized the United States Department of Agriculture to create rules, and each state department [of agriculture] to create rules for industrial hemp. The Federal Drug Administration has retained control over the CBD productions and for human and animal consumption. And FDA has made it very clear and made statements that it is still illegal. And that unless your state has created a CBD program, you still are operating outside the law, and have said they’re going to look at this and try to create rules and regulations, but it may take three years.
In our own statutes here, it says under our criminal statutes that defines what cannabis is, and it says any derivative of the cannabis plant. So technically the hemp plant is still considered under the definition of cannabis. Which is why we are moving so hard and so fast to try to get the hemp legislation passed that creates a framework for both the industrial side [of growing hemp], as well as the human and animal consumption side [of CBD products that come from hemp].
I mean, we all have seen how people are using CBD, and it’s such a fantastic option for so many patients and consumers out there, but there’s also problems. Because there’s no regulations in place, a consumer doesn’t know what they’re buying. They don’t know if it has CBD in it. They don’t know if it has THC [the psychoactive chemical which is found in marijuana]. The last thing we want is someone to be buying a product think that they’re just taking CBD, be in a drug free workplace, get tested, and test positive for THC because there was THC in the product.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws of Florida has warned that your office will be sending cease and desist letters to CBD retailers in the state. Have you sent any of those letters, or can you tell us if something like that is in the works?
That is fake news. In fact, I have been saying since day one, once we create the program there will be rules and regulations, and if you are not following those rules and regulations then yes, law enforcement plus my office would be entitled to come in and remove all these products that are not regulated, that are not part of the program, off of the shelves.
There has been nothing brought by my office to test, there has been no cease and desist letters sent, there’s been none even drafted. Again I go back to why I want to press the bills so fast on the hemp side, because I want to make sure we get the program in place and get the bad actors out of our state.