Florida legislation would admit more Black farmers into medical cannabis industry | Cannabis News | Orlando

The state is dragging its feet on promises to bring Black farmers into the booming cannabis industry, and some Florida lawmakers want to change that. After the state finally chose one Black farmer to receive a license to grow and dispense medical cannabis last year, two bills coming up for consideration during the 2023 legislative session propose to significantly expand the field.

The 2017 law implementing Florida’s cannabis program included a provision that one Medical Marijuana Treatment Center license must go to a farmer who had received a settlement in the Pigford v. Glickman case. Plaintiffs in that decades-old lawsuit alleged the United States Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers when doling out loans and assistance.

After a five-year delay, the Florida Department of Health issued a license for a Pigford applicant in September. The winner was Terry Donnell Gwinn, a farmer in north Florida. The 11 other Pigford applicants who weren’t selected have since challenged the state’s decision.

Orlando Rep. Bruce Antone and some of his Democratic colleagues want to help out the rejected farmers. House Bill 493 would award licenses to the applicants who were denied during the Pigford process. It would also allow descendants of the Pigford litigants to apply for licenses as part of this protected class. Under the legislation, Pigford litigants, their descendants, and the joint venture partners of Pigford applicants would get the maximum points possible for their diversity plans when applying for licenses. The Office of Medical Marijuana Use employs a point system for selecting applications.

One of the rejected applicants, Leona Robinson from Escambia County, highlights the need to expand the license pool, Rep. Antone told Orlando Weekly.

“In the case of Ms. Leona Robinson, who I’m trying to help with this bill, she is 100 years old,” Antone said. “She is not out there with a till trying to grow any crop, but she does use her land for timber harvesting. And so this bill would allow her descendant to apply for a license as a Pigford farmer.”

The Pigford case alleged discrimination by the USDA between 1981 and 1996. It was first settled more than two decades ago, in 1999. Many of the farmers who received settlements are in their 80s or older.

Florida’s lack of haste selecting a Pigford farmer has added insult to injury. An 84-year-old Ocala resident, Moton Hopkins, received the highest score on his application but died while waiting for the license to be issued.

“Any interest Mr. Hopkins had in the MMTC application ceased upon Mr. Hopkins’ death, as the licensure qualifications are personal to Mr. Hopkins and do not flow to third parties,” health officials wrote in denying his application. 

Lawyers for the team behind Hopkins’ application challenged the decision, arguing that the denial is “fundamentally inconsistent” with the Pigford settlement, which “recognized that the heirs of an identified and qualified farmer are intended beneficiaries.” 

In February, an administrative law judge sided with the state in its denial of Hopkins’ application. Hopkins’ lawyers intend to appeal the decision.

Another bill, Senate Bill 1356, also would award licenses to Pigford applicants. St. Petersburg Sen. Darryl Rouson, sponsor of SB 1356, has worked for years to get a license to a Black farmer in Florida. Unlike Rep. Antone’s bill, Rouson’s measure does not include heirs to the Pigford litigants. Antone says he and Rouson haven’t yet spoken about their similar pieces of legislation.

Antone’s and Rouson’s bills resemble language in the law implementing the medical cannabis program. The 2017 law offered licenses to applicants who were denied entry into the 2014 low-THC cannabis program, which preceded the voter-approved medical program. In 2018 and 2019, the Department of Health issued nine licenses to those applicants. 

Although it acted faster than with the Pigford applicants, the Department of Health was slow in issuing those nine licenses as well. It was finally jolted into action after a 2018 ruling by Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham, who excoriated the Office of Medical Marijuana Use’s point system for selecting applications.

“The Master Spreadsheet and Score Card are not modern-day Tablets of Stone upon which the inerrant Law was inscribed by the hand of the Almighty Bureaucrat,” Van Laningham wrote in his recommended order.

Florida has only issued 22 medical cannabis licenses, although it plans to issue another 22 this year. The Department of Health has said a 2021 Supreme Court case challenging the program’s vertical-integration setup for Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers caused the years-long holdup. Still, Antone says only a select few are participating in the billion-dollar industry.

“We’ve got some legislation now that will hopefully allow additional African American farmers, meaning folks that are descendants of the Pigford farmers, to take advantage of this opportunity and make some money selling medical marijuana.”

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