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Reefer for recreation in Florida? Lawmakers hear both sides

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(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A day after a House committee heard a Reefer Madness-style presentation about recreational marijuana from a Harvard psychobiologist, a separate health panel received a more-tempered perspective from Colorado's former cannabis czar. 

Andrew Freedman, a Harvard Law School graduate who's now a consultant, gave the House Health Quality Subcommittee the down-low Wednesday about the impact on Colorado of the legalization of marijuana, along with trends in other states that have authorized recreational use.

Freedman served as Colorado's first director of the Office of Cannabis Coordination, overseeing the state's move from medicinal to recreational marijuana.

House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues told reporters the House is on a fact-finding mission to prepare lawmakers as two dueling measures that would legalize recreational marijuana in Florida have been proposed for the 2020 ballot.

Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who has been his chamber's go-to guy on all things pot, is among the House leaders who are adamantly opposed to legalization of recreational marijuana for adults, a stance bolstered by Harvard researcher Bertha Madras on Tuesday.

"Marijuana is not benign. It is not safe. It is addictive. … It interferes with learning and memory," Madras, who specializes in substance use disorders, told members of the Health & Human Services Committee.

Madras delineated a plethora of pot-related hazards. For example, she advised that marijuana use in teenagers can increase the risk of schizophrenia and cause long-term harmful effects in adults.

But Freedman's take was decidedly less dire Wednesday, although a few of his findings carried some caution for lawmakers if voters decide to authorize recreational pot.

Policymakers need to particularly pay attention to the frequency with which consumers report using marijuana, Freedman said.

After Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, the state saw a gradual decline in people who reported using pot one to six times per month and an increase in the number who reported using it 25 to 30 times monthly.

"All public health officials will say you don't want to see daily or near-daily use," Freedman said.

Of people who reported using marijuana in the previous month in 2017, the last year of the data provided by Freedman, more than a third of them were daily or near-daily users.

Florida lawmakers hoping the state could cash in on the legalization of recreational pot --- medical marijuana is untaxed in the state --- might have been a tad disappointed by Colorado's experience.

Colorado last year reaped about $266 million in tax revenue from marijuana, which is taxed at 15 percent, according to Colorado Department of Revenue data offered by Freedman. He warned lawmakers not to rely on pot to fulfill state spending pipe dreams.

"It's not that kind of money. It's not the billions of dollars needed for larger shortfalls in your budget," he said.