Bill could help black farmers get pot licenses

Black farmers who didn’t make the cut last year could have another opportunity to vie for medical-marijuana licenses, under a bill approved by lawmakers in the final days of the 2023 legislative session.

The bill, which awaits a decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is part of years-long efforts aimed at giving Black farmers an entry into Florida’s now-flourishing medical-marijuana industry.

Legislators first attempted to loop Black farmers into the industry as part of a broader law carrying out a 2016 constitutional amendment that authorized medical marijuana. Part of a 2017 law required state health officials to grant a license to an applicant who was a participant in decades-old litigation, known as “Pigford” cases, addressing racial discrimination against Black farmers by federal agriculture officials. To be eligible for the license, Black farmers also had to show they had been in business in Florida for at least five years.

In October 2021, the Florida Department of Health rolled out a process for Black farmers to apply for the license. The state agency received 12 applications, which were evaluated by a private contractor, and in September announced it intended to award a license to Suwannee County-based farmer Terry Gwinn. But Gwinn’s license hasn’t been finalized because of legal and administrative challenges.

The bill approved last week (HB 387) would require the health department to issue licenses to Black farmers whose applications did not have any identified deficiencies, regardless of what scores they received from evaluators. It also would require the department to award licenses to applicants whose applications were deemed to have met “all requirements for licensure” by an administrative law judge. And the bill would give hopefuls whose applications were found deficient a 90-day “cure” period to address the problems.

While the state received 12 applications for the Black farmer license, it isn’t clear how many additional licenses the new law could generate because not all of the applicants might have met the criteria for a license.

The legislation “certainly does not automatically give everyone a license, and it is likely that some of them will not prevail,” attorney John Lockwood, who represents medical-marijuana businesses, told The News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers last week added the Black farmer licenses issue to a bill that would allow doctors to use telehealth when re-certifying medical-marijuana patients’ eligibility for cannabis.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who sponsored the Black farmer amendment, has tried for six years to push state officials to move forward with a license. Rouson and Black farmers have argued that the passage of time makes it harder for them to compete against existing medical-marijuana operators whose businesses, for the most part, continue to blossom.

“It’s shameful that it (the Black farmer license) was not issued six years ago, when it was directed to be issued,” Rouson said in a phone interview.

Black farmers in Florida faced discrimination from state and federal agriculture officials and “from societal and business norms that their counterparts did not have to deal with,” Rouson said. In addition, “communities of color have disproportionately been impacted by marijuana’s unlawful use,” the senator said.

“And this community should be allowed to share in the beneficial use of marijuana and engage in this industry,” Rouson, who is Black, told the News Service. “I’m interested in standing with the governor for the signing of this significant and historic legislation.”

DeSantis hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the measure, which the Senate passed unanimously Thursday after adding Rouson’s amendment. The House gave final approval to the bill later the same day.

The bill could spur additional administrative and legal challenges, but it would pave the way for Gwinn to gain a foothold in the medical-marijuana industry.

Jim McKee, an attorney who represents Gwinn, pointed to the lengthy wait for the license to come to fruition.

“Unfortunately, more than seven months later, Mr. Gwinn is still waiting for legal challenges to be resolved so he can receive his license,” McKee said in a text message. The bill “will prevent any further delay, and allow Mr. Gwinn to immediately move forward with licensed activities upon the bill becoming law. The bill also provides a potential pathway to licensure for other applicants.”

If DeSantis signs the bill or allows it to become law without his signature, the measure is set to take effect on July 1. That date also would trigger the 90-day window for applicants to address shortcomings in their applications.

The push for the Black farmer license comes as the number of medical-marijuana operators in the state — currently at 22 — is poised to double. The 2017 law required health officials to issue additional licenses as the number of certified cannabis patients expanded.

In a long-awaited move, Florida health officials announced in February they would accept applications for 22 additional licenses during a five-day “batching cycle” that ended April 28.

The application window was the first major opportunity, other than the Black farmer license, for newcomers to the state’s cannabis market to vie for licenses since the 2017 legislation passed. An earlier round of licenses was based on a 2014 law that legalized non-euphoric cannabis for a limited number of patients.

Investors and marijuana operators for years have viewed Florida as potentially one of the country’s premiere locations to set up shop.

Dara Kam – The News Service of Florida


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