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Gov. Ron DeSantis once held a press conference with one of the leading medical marijuana advocates in Florida to announce that the state would stop trying to block access to the drug in smokable form.
But on Thursday during a campaign stop in South Carolina the governor took a tougher approach to the issue, saying he opposes decriminalizing marijuana nationally. DeSantis even described medical marijuana as “very controversial” despite siding with supporters of Florida's program in the dispute over allowing patients to smoke the drug.
Florida’s constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana was approved by 71% of voters in 2016.
DeSantis won his first term in 2018, defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum.
John Morgan, a high-profile trial attorney who spearheaded the medical marijuana amendment, supported Gillum’s campaign.
Yet within two months of DeSantis winning, Morgan was standing beside DeSantis during the press conference in Winter Park. Despite the constitutional amendment legalizing the drug, the Legislature had blocked patients from smoking it. Morgan - who calls himself "Pot Daddy" - was pushing for access to the drug in smokable form, and DeSantis backed him.
“Whether they (patients) have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?” DeSantis said at the event. “I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved.”
DeSantis’ position contradicted many Republicans in the Legislature - which eventually went along with the governor and allowed patients to smoke the drug - and was widely seen as a bipartisan olive branch after a bruising election that he won by the narrowest margin of any governor's race in Florida history.
The governor's stance also seemed to align him with some younger GOP leaders who have been more open to easing marijuana laws, among them Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who also was at the press conference and once was close with DeSantis.
Now DeSantis is running in a GOP primary for president and projecting a tough on crime image that includes a hard stance against illegal drugs, especially drugs such as fentanyl that have caused a wave of deaths across the country.
Marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in many states and there is a push to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Florida that would allow recreational use. Other states have decriminalized the drug.
Decriminalization stops short of full legalization, and instead typically directs law enforcement not to arrest people for using the drug or possessing it in small amounts.
During his event in South Carolina Thursday, DeSantis took a question from someone in the audience who claimed to be representing "a couple of broken veterans, veterans with service-connected disease, illness and injury."
"We are saying please, please will you decriminalize marijuana in 2025?" the individual asked.
"I don't think we would do that," DeSantis said. "But I think what I've done in Florida is, we have a medical program through our constitution that the voters did and so the veterans who are in those situations in Florida, they're actually allowed access. It's very controversial because obviously there's some people that abuse it and are using it recreationally."
DeSantis then connected the issue to fentanyl.
"This stuff is very powerful now that they're putting on the street," he said. "And when these kids do it it's really bad for the youth and I just think we have to be very united as a society. We want our kids to stay clear of drugs and we don't want to do policies that's going to make it have easier access for them. You don't even know what they're putting in some of this stuff now because you have things like fentanyl that can wind up... and you can die just by ingesting that."
DeSantis went on to say: "We have too many people using drugs in this country right now. I think it hurts our workforce readiness, I think it hurts people's ability to prosper in life and just from my experience growing up in the Tampa Bay area in Florida, the kids in high school that got involved in that, that I went with, all suffered, all their activities, all their grades and everything like that."
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DeSantis' response to the question sounded much more like the traditional Republican than the lawmaker who appeared with Morgan, a move that drew criticism from some in the GOP who were longtime anti-drug advocates.
Responding to DeSantis' 2019 press conference with Morgan, prominent Florida GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler, who is deeply involved in anti-drug initiatives, told the Tampa Bay Times: “We’re going to damage more kids.”
DeSantis echoed Sembler Thursday, saying: "We need to educate the kids."