Every year on April 20, marijuana lovers across the country come together in an unofficial celebration of a drug that is still federally illegal but hailed as medicine and recreation in 33 states across the U.S.
The history behind how “420” became a code for marijuana is up for debate, but the date “4/20” has long symbolized a time for folks to gather — much closer than 6 feet apart — for festivals, campus smoke-outs and concerts.
But amid a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, this 4/20 is different for medical marijuana patients in Florida.
In response to a Facebook post by a Miami Herald reporter, several patients say they are celebrating at a distance with their neighbors, over video chat with friends or simply taking the time to meditate on the ups and downs of marijuana policy in Florida over the past year. Others said they plan to get creative in the kitchen, making marijuana-infused butters, desserts and even hot wings.
Some are working at the state’s 239 dispensaries on what they say is one of the busiest days of the year.
One patient said he and his roommates already stocked up on seven different strains from their favorite dispensaries to celebrate the occasion. In the past, he said they’d swim during the day, and at night make s’mores around a campfire. At 4:20, they would do a countdown and all take a hit when the clock strikes.
“This year I’ll probably roll a few joints, smoke a few bowls, dab off my nectar collector, and hey, maybe even hit the Gravity Bong once or twice at 4:20 pm,” he said.
But a lot of them are relying on the drug to help them through the anxiety the pandemic brings for so many.
“Everybody is going through similar circumstances,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist and advocate. “Everyone is looking for ways to de-stress.”
Fried, a medical marijuana patient herself, recalls spending April 20, 2019 among friends in St. Augustine, where she enjoyed a visit to a dispensary during a trip out of a town to the city she frequented as a new lawyer in nearby Jacksonville.
She took in the streets filled with people and reflected on how just a few years ago, the push to legalize medical marijuana was still that — a push. As of Friday, there were 333,810 qualified patients and 2,537 marijuana doctors in Florida.
Voters’ overwhelming support
In 2016, 71% of Florida voters opted to legalize medical marijuana on a constitutional amendment. The 2017 bill signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form but made it illegal to smoke. In January 2019, newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made waves when he called on lawmakers to change Florida law to allow smokable medical marijuana.
“Just being able to go into a dispensary and legally purchase marijuana products is a significant difference in our state,” Friedsaid in an interview.
But there is still lots of work to be done, said Fried, who is serving on various 4/20 panels with doctors and advocates to discuss such issues. Broadly legalizing marijuana for adult use would be a big first step.
On the campaign trail, Fried often talked about criminal justice reform and how legalization would address those who are in Florida’s prisons on marijuana possession charges.
“Black and brown men are still being arrested for simple possession where white men are making millions of dollars,” she said. “It’s a clear example of how we need to reform and look at marijuana.”
She added that legalizing would also reduce strain on the court system, create jobs and add taxes
to benefit the state. Medicine, like medical cannabis, cannot be taxed.
Ballot initiatives flame out
The two ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana for adult use fizzled this year after failing to get enough signatures, bogged down by a new elections law that went into effect in July 2019. The new law changed the state elections website format, set tight deadlines for turning in signatures and required hourly pay for petition workers.
Meanwhile, national groups like Americans for Safe Access, the The Drug Policy Alliance, and other advocacy groups are hosting virtual talks to address their work toward federal marijuana prohibition. The groups are hosting an online concert headlined by singer and activist Melissa Etheridge.
Cannabis LAB, a cannabis law group based in South Florida is hosting a live stream to benefit Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network with locations in the state.
Dispensaries across the state are having special deals for patients, which they say can be taken advantage of using delivery services or curbside pickup. Medical marijuana is, after all, considered an essential necessity during the statewide shutdown.