A Cannabis campaigner running for office as Agricultural Commissioner in Florida is transforming the race into a mini-referendum on cannabis legalisation in the State.
Nicole “Nikki” Fried knows she’s not what people see when they imagine a candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She doesn’t wear a cowboy hat or a belt buckle. She was born and raised in suburban South Florida, and her family isn’t tied to the agriculture industry.
But that, she says, is her key to winning the seat.
“I see things through a new lens where my opponent does not,” she said.
The 40-year-old marijuana lobbyist and Fort Lauderdale-based attorney prides herself on being a visible face in the state’s growing medical cannabis industry.
“You don’t have to come from the industry to fight for the industry,” she said. “You don’t have to be a farmer to be a commissioner.”
Fried grew up in Miami, and went to the University of Florida, where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in political campaigning and a law degree.
After a stint at a corporate law firm, she departed from “corporate life,” she said, and went on to work in the public defender’s office in Alachua County. After two years, she became the division’s felony chief.
Fried eventually moved back to South Florida to be closer to family, where she continued to practice law. Her sister, who lives in Wellington, says the two women have been close since they were little girls.
During her time lobbying in Tallahassee, she represented Florida’s Children First’s lobbying team, for which she helped pass a bill that provided $4.5 million in legal aid to disabled dependent children in the state.
President of Florida’s Children’s First, attorney Howard Talenfield, said he got to know Fried well when she worked for the firm and later lobbied for the nonprofit.
“She has that kind of charisma, where people believe what she says,” Talenfield said.
He said he hopes Fried could bring a voice for children into the cabinet-level role.
On to medical marijuana
In 2015, she starting lobbying for medical marijuana when a client hired her to help get a medical usage license.
After witnessing how cannabis oil helped children who have seizures and weaned people off opiates, she learned the extent to which medical marijuana can impact patients’ lives. She also saw how the licensing structure made it difficult for patients and distributors to navigate the system.
“We have a chance to make them feel better,” she said. “It was time for me to kind of put myself out there and try to change policy in the way our government looks.”
Fried wants to move medical marijuana regulation under the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as opposed to the Department of Health.
Fried’s passion for marijuana reform extends into the hemp industry as well. Farmers should be able to grow industrial hemp as an alternative crop, she says, in order to create nutrients and utilize land plagued by citrus greening. She says hemp crops could keep a seasonal workforce employed for longer.
“There’s just no support from the commissioner’s office, and a Republican-led legislature doesn’t understand it,” she said.
Fried has also advocated for legalizing smokable medical marijuana, which she says is the “will of the people” in a video she posted to Twitter Sept. 13.
In the video, Fried calls out Gov. Rick Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implores local pols Ron DeSantis and Matt Caldwell to respond.
Caldwell, who helped draft marijuana legislation in 2016, said in an interview that he is skeptical of smokable marijuana for medicinal use.
“Straight-up smoking a plant is not how we deliver medicine in any other scenario,” he said. “It’s because of dosing. [Oils and pills] have been tested and hves efficacy. You don’t have those guarantees if you are smoking the raw plant.”
Fried is the first woman to snag a nomination for the seat, which is something she said is “not an easy feat.” In 2001, Terry Lee Rhodes was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush as an interim commissioner.
Fried easily beat Democratic rivals Jeffrey Duane Porter and Roy David Walker in the primary with 58 percent of the vote. Walker, a South Florida environmental activist got 25 percent and Porter, the mayor of Homestead, got 15.
Despite the successful primary, Ben Pollara, a consultant on her campaign, said Fried has not had it easy. She’s faced myriad challenges on the campaign so far.
“It’s historically been an office not just held by white men but white Republican men,” he said. “It’s an old boys club, and it’s a bubble.”
In recent months, Fried’s campaign has even had trouble finding a bank for her campaign accounts.
Fried’s stance on marijuana and subsequently, donations from the medical marijuana industry, prompted both Wells Fargo and BB&T to close her campaign accounts in the span of three weeks in August and September.
A review of Fried’s campaign finances shows a $1,000 donation from Savara Hastings, executive director of the Florida-based American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association and $3,000 from Jake Bergman, CEO and founder of Atlanta-based Surterra Holdings LLC, which intends to become a national medical marijuana business.
The pressure for banks in the state to shun medical marijuana business is high because Florida hosts more international customers and sees more potential instances of money laundering than the average state. Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana, joining 30 states nationwide with such legalization.
Fried has made banking a high-profile issue, and says that as a member of the Cabinet she plans to lobby the federal government to protect bank accounts that handle money tied to medical marijuana.
If elected in November, Fried will be tasked with appointing the director of the Office of Financial Regulation, which oversees the state’s banking industry.
Congressman Charlie Crist took Fried’s side in the banking fiasco during a conference call last week.
“What has happened to Nikki is an unfortunate reminder of the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, highlighting an urgent need for action,” he said.
Fried said she hopes to work with the new Chief Financial Officer to create a new state bank that would protect accounts with ties to the medical marijuana industry.
“This is an opportunity for the CFO and for the Office of Financial Regulation to say ‘State banks are open for business, come into the state. We will protect you,” she said.
Caldwell said businesses should be using state-chartered banks to get around marijuana-induced banking problems.
In addition to contributions from the marijuana industry, other noteworthy donors to Fried’s campaign include $5,000 from billionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene and $3,000 from Ruth’s List, an organization that recruits and supports female candidates for office. In a tongue-in-cheek nod to the marijuana industry, Fried’s also collected about 50 donations in increments of $4.20. (The number 420 is code for marijuana use in the cannabis culture.)
As of September, her campaign and her political committee, Florida Consumers First, had raised about $453,238. Nearly $148,712 of it was raised in the first month or so of her campaign.
John Morgan, a well-known Orlando attorney and proponent of medical marijuana, said Fried is a “woman with a vision.” Morgan, who has never publicly endorsed a candidate before, said he decided to go public because of the way she refuses to see marijuana as a “serpent in a box” and wants to take the office in a new direction.
“She’s not stuck in the 1950s as a Polk County cowboy,” Morgan said. “She is somebody who would make the agriculture cabinet position really relevant, instead of just a rubber stamp for sugar and overseeing carnival rides.”
Where does Nikki Fried stand on …
Fried has not taken any money from the sugar industry directly but does not criticize the industry.
“Everybody wants to blame everybody for what’s causing the algae blooms,” she said. “Everybody has a little piece of fault, so I refuse to go after anybody I’d be regulating. Like, why would you want to come and deal with me if I’ve spent the last three months attacking you?”
Fried is one of the state’s most prominent lobbyist for expanding access to medical marijuana. She estimates that between the cannabis and industrial hemp industries, the state could bring in $30 billion to $40 billion in tax revenue for areas like education, affordable housing and other infrastructure. She says that utilizing land in the off season gives the state the opportunity to keep a workforce around yearlong and allow citrus growers to keep land that might otherwise be sold to developers.
“The fact that they have not allowed our farmers to start pursuing those avenues has really hurt the environment, our workforce,” she said in August. “Not allowing growth of cannabis and industrial hemp in the off season is a missed opportunity.”