Nicole “Nikki” Fried

By Vanessa Orr

The state of Florida has faced a lot of challenges lately, yet even in the midst of hurricanes and a global pandemic, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nicole “Nikki” Fried has been able to move forward on the state’s plan to create a hemp cultivation program.

“Even with the onset of COVID in our state, we’ve been able to launch the hemp program successfully,” said Fried of the project that began accepting cultivation applications at the end of April. “We now have 506 approved applications to grow hemp on almost 19,000 acres. 

“We’ve also received six applications from organizations that want to participate in additional hemp pilot programs, which include connecting to colleges or universities that have agriculture departments or pharmacy or medical schools to do research on seeds, how different strains grow in different conditions, and how to use industrial hemp fibers,” she added. “There is also an incredibly exciting collaboration between a state college and a private company to utilize hemp to clean our waterways.”

Fried believes that hemp is a viable alternative crop for many Florida farmers, especially those who have been hurt by COVID. “With so many service industry businesses shutting down like restaurants, schools, theme parks and cruise lines, they have nowhere to sell their products,” she explained. “A lot of farmers started with smaller acreage to see how hemp would work because they were cautious about how it would grow in the state, and so far, they’ve seen tremendous success.”

As long as the land is properly zoned and they meet licensing requirements, any farmer can participate in the program. “One of my big sticking points was to make sure that there were no limitations on the number of licenses available, who could apply, or the amount of acreage they could use,” said Fried of making the new crop accessible.

“We’re looking at more than just the cultivation side,” added Fried of the industrial hemp pilot projects. “If there is no one to sell it to, it’s a worthless commodity. We’re working to create an entire industry.” 

Cannabis and CBD

According to Fried, the medical marijuana industry is continuing to expand as there is increased demand for those products, and dispensaries are reporting an uptick in applications and visit frequency. 

“There is still significant frustration with putting out edibles because we are waiting for the Florida Department of Health to finalize their rules,” said Fried. “There also need to be big changes made in regulations about patient access and in breaking up vertical integration—making the product not just accessible but affordable. I’m hoping to work with the Legislature over time to make those changes.”

CBD licensing is also underway in the state.

“Licensing is needed because this is an unregulated industry at the federal level,” Fried explained. “So many people are now buying CBD for health and wellness, but they have no idea if there is lead, chemicals, or even any CBD in the products they buy.” 

On Jan. 1, 2020, the department’s Food Services Division began receiving applications for CBD licenses.

“If we learn that someone is selling CBD without a license, we’ll have a conversation with them about applying because it will be enforced—this goes for food stores, vape shops, gas stations and everything in between,” said Fried, adding that the department is sampling products to ensure that what is on the label is in the package.

“We’ve done a lot of product testing in which items were mislabeled; the product may say it has 100 milligrams of CBD, but it actually has none,” she said. “We’ve also seen an uptick of lead in products being tested and we’re working with manufacturers to figure out where it is coming from.”

Tasked to keep Floridians safe, the department is also meeting the COVID challenge head-on. 

“We’ve just launched a public information campaign in answer to the fact that there is no leadership in Florida concerning COVID response,” said Fried. “People are receiving mixed messages from the governor’s office and the White House, and the citizens of our state are looking for leadership, hope, answers and empathy. As the consumer watchdog agency, it is our job to get the message out there about what every person can do to stop the spread of the virus and to protect themselves and their families.” 

The campaign includes videos by influencers, athletes and more, and have been live-streamed by networks across the state and distributed through social media. PSAs will launch in the coming weeks.

While it has been surmised that Fried is planning a run for governor, she says that her plate is full right now.

“I’m just focused on getting through the pandemic, which has completely collapsed our healthcare system, our economy and the agricultural industry,” she said, noting that agriculture has suffered a $522 million loss to date. 

“We need to work to make it stronger than ever,” she added of the state’s #1 economic driver, “so we’re working around the clock with producers to get ready for the next harvest.”