The candidates to be Florida’s next Commissioner of Agriculture have a number of stark differences -- not least of which are their backgrounds.
State Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Republican candidate, is a seventh generation Floridian from a family of farmers. Democrat Nikki Fried, a public defender and medical-marijuana lobbyist, is from urban South Florida.
They offer differing visions for the future of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a far-reaching agency that deals not only with the state’s agricultural industry, but with ensuring consumer safety and regulation in areas from auto repairs to pawn shops to roller coasters. Voters will decide in November who will be the new commissioner, which is a cabinet-level position.
On The Florida Roundup Friday, Caldwell, a constitutional conservative, described his interest in politics as having stemmed from his passion for the state’s agriculture and natural resources. He touted “progress made over the last eight years” in the legislature to address Florida's environment and water issues, and vowed to support small businesses.
Fried spoke of a vision for the future of the department that breaks from the status quo. “What I envision, if elected,” she said, “is to do a reset button.”
Fried said Friday that she believes the Department should take on the responsibility of managing the state’s medical marijuana industry, currently under the purview of the Department of Health Office of Medical Marijuana Use.
Though Caldwell criticized the Department of Health’s current handling of medical marijuana licensing and regulation, and said the Department of Agriculture should play a larger role, he did not go so far as to express support for transferring responsibility entirely.
In November of 2016, 71% of Florida voters approved the Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, also known as Amendment 2, which gave patients the right to use medical marijuana if they have been diagnosed with a qualified medical condition.
But Fried said “Tallahassee and legislators and the governor’s office” have since put “roadblocks” in front of medical marijuana “every step of the way.”
“I’ve spent so much time over the past few years talking to patients all across the state and they have been begging to have access because they want a better quality of life,” she said.
She called for expanding access by reducing obstacles for doctors and patients, removing caps on the amount of retail shops -- she argued such caps are “unconstitutional” -- and granting more local control.
She also called for the opening of a state bank to serve as a “depository” for growers, license holders, patients and doctors, and protecting banks that are handling money linked to the cannabis industry.
In August, Fried announced that Wells Fargo had closed her campaign account because of her links to the cannabis industry.
Caldwell was an original co-sponsor of a 2014 bill that authorized Charlotte's Web, one type of “non-euphoric” medicinal marijuana. He said Friday he supports the industry and wants “to see the program managed effectively.”
“The Department of Health I think has demonstrated they’re not overly eager to help see this program be as successful as I think it should have been,” he said. “I’m open to having the Department of Agriculture serve in the largest capacity it can, in whatever way is gonna get the program effectively managed and implemented in the state of Florida.”
Fried expressed her support for recreational marijuana, calling legalization “inevitable,” whether through a “constitutional amendment in 2020 or ... a more moderate legislature in years to come.” Caldwell did not comment on recreational marijuana.
Though nearly every other state in the country mandates police or courts to handle concealed weapons permits, in Florida that job falls within Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. And the candidates have vastly different ideas about the future of that role.
Current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was widely criticized earlier this year after an investigation found his office failed to review national background checks on tens of thousands of applications for concealed weapons permits, meaning the applications got approved without the required background check. Putnam blamed the oversight on a staffer.
Caldwell, who declared himself “an outspoken advocate for all of our constitutional liberties,” said he would “review [the] entire program” on the first day of his tenure, to ensure it’s up to par.
Fried, who called herself a “staunch advocate for the Second Amendment,” would instead like to move the permitting responsibility out of the Department and over to law enforcement.
On Friday, Fried criticized Caldwell’s close ties to the NRA. She said she has a concealed weapons permit and owns a gun.
“The biggest contrast between two of us is that I don’t have an A+ rating [from the NRA] and I’ve said to the NRA that their influence on this department is going to end on Nov. 7,” she said.
In March, Caldwell voted against the School Safety Act, passed in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, which sought to arm some school employees and raise the age to buy a gun, among other measures. The bill passed 67-50.
He said he voted against it because he felt some of its provisions were unconstitutional, such as requiring gun owners to be 21.
Instead, Caldwell said lawmakers should focus on the “mental illness challenge in this country.”