Nikki Fried has spent the past three years trying to tear down barriers to getting medical marijuana to Florida patients, facing roadblocks from state health officials and lawmakers in the process.
Now, a frustrated Fried is turning her advocacy into a broader platform — she’s running for agriculture commissioner.
It’s been no secret for some time among the state’s medical-marijuana industry insiders that the Fort Lauderdale Democrat was going to enter the race. But on Tuesday, Fried formally filed qualifying papers to run for the Cabinet post, which is open as term-limited Republican Adam Putnam runs for governor.
Like many people in Florida and throughout the country, “I think that politics in government is broken,” Fried told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
“I witnessed it firsthand with the implementation of medical marijuana,” she said, referring to a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016.
Fried is among many critics who accuse Gov. Rick Scott’s administration of dragging its feet to put in place regulations for the state’s budding marijuana industry. Medical marijuana supporters also blame state lawmakers for creating too many obstacles to the industry and patients, such as a ban on smokable medical marijuana that a Tallahassee judge recently decided ran afoul of the constitutional amendment.
“Seventy-two percent of Floridians voted for medical marijuana in our Constitution, but the Legislature and our governor continued to block it every step of the way,” Fried, 40, said. “So I’m running because I think that we need new leadership in Tallahassee. I want to serve the state and listen to the will of the people and make sure that government starts getting back on track.”
Fried runs a one-woman lobbying shop, called “Igniting Florida,” which most people consider a tongue-in-cheek reference to her work in the marijuana arena.
Laughing, she explained that “Ignite” was the name of her party when she cut her political teeth as student body president at the University of Florida, where she also received her law degree and a master’s in campaign politics.
Like other experts in the marijuana industry, Fried believes that full legalization of marijuana is in Florida’s future, but she said she is currently focused on ensuring that the constitutional amendment is implemented and that sick patients get the treatment they need.
“As a former public defender, I saw day-in, day-out discrimination in law enforcement and so many of our minorities being arrested disproportionately on simple possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. The state is spending hundreds of millions of dollars incarcerating individuals for simple possession,” she said.
But for now, she said, the state needs to begin doing research and educating the public about the benefits of medicinal marijuana, which Fried called a better alternative to costly and highly addictive prescription drugs.
“This is a solution to our opiate crisis,” she said, adding that states where medical marijuana is legal have seen overdoses caused by opiates drop by up to 25 percent.
Fried said she believes she is the only candidate in the country who comes from the marijuana industry.
“Not just a supporter of the industry but knows all of the inner workings of the medical marijuana program not only here in Florida but across the country and understands all of the obstacles that have been put in the way of full implementation,” she said.
But marijuana isn’t all that Fried has on her mind in her pursuit of the Cabinet post.
She said she’s also paying attention to the other duties of the agriculture commissioner, including the issuance of concealed-weapons licenses.
Putnam came under fire after a report by the Tampa Bay Times last week that a former employee failed for more than a year to conduct national background checks on applications for concealed-weapons licenses. Putnam told reporters Saturday that the former employee failed to follow up on 365 applications and that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had revoked 291 permits that had been issued in error.
“When I saw the article, my stomach dropped on how somebody who has been out there for eight years talking about his concealed weapons permits would allow something like this to happen. It’s almost like he stopped watching the store, whether that was because he was running for governor the whole time or just didn’t recognize the importance of this,” Fried said.
Fried stopped short of saying that Putnam should resign, as many Democrats have demanded.
“Certainly he does not need a promotion,” she said.
Fried said she is proudest of her accomplishments “defending people my entire life” while working on “white hat issues” including her stint in the public defender’s office, representing homeowners facing foreclosure and successfully lobbying for legislation that resulted in special-needs children in foster care getting legal representation.
Fried will face off against two other Democrats in the Aug. 28 primary, Jeffrey Porter and R. David Walker. The GOP side of the contest features Baxter Troutman, a former state House member from Winter Haven; Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring; Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers; and Plant City businessman Mike McCalister, a retired Army National Guard and Reserves colonel.
When asked what a South Florida lawyer knows about the agriculture industry, Fried said people throughout the state want good leaders.
“I have a proven track record of breaking down barriers, crossing party lines to get things accomplished. They want somebody who’s going to listen and fight for them. I have been a strong advocate for anything I fight for. That would be no different” as agriculture commissioner, she said.
Dara Kam, News Service of Florida/NSF Staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this story