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Florida advances process for Black farmers seeking with marijuana license

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE --- After years of sitting on the sidelines as the state’s cannabis industry soared, Black farmers will soon be able to vie for a highly sought-after medical marijuana license.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on Thursday rolled out a process for Black farmers with ties to Florida to compete for a designated license to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana.

The rule --- which does not specify when applications for the single license will begin to be accepted --- came more than four years after the Florida Legislature set up a framework for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Part of the 2017 law required health officials to grant a license to “one applicant that is a recognized class member” in decades-old litigation, known as the “Pigford” cases, which addressed racial discrimination against Black farmers by federal officials.

The law also requires the Black farmer applicants to have conducted business in Florida for at least five years and have valid certificates of registration as nurseries from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The emergency rule, 70-page application form and instructions and 18-page application-evaluator manual published Thursday also provide a glimpse into how the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use will likely handle an upcoming batch of applications, which overall will almost double the number of the state’s cannabis operators.

The office is asking state lawmakers for nearly $13 million to hire 85 full-time employees --- more than doubling its workforce --- and to expand operations to cope with an expected 150 applications for the new licenses.

In addition to requiring the Black farmer license, the 2017 law set up a schedule for new licenses to come online as the number of patients increases. The number of patients has skyrocketed to more than 600,000 since medical marijuana was broadly legalized through a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2016.

Florida has 22 licensed operators, dubbed by the state as “medical marijuana treatment centers.” Under the law, health officials are required to issue 19 more licenses, including the Black farmer license.

The DeSantis administration put the licensing and rulemaking processes on hold while awaiting the outcome of a Florida Supreme Court ruling in a key lawsuit challenging part of the 2017 law that requires operators to conduct all aspects of the marijuana business --- growing, processing and dispensing --- rather than allowing companies to handle individual components of the marijuana trade.

The court in May upheld the law, which was designed to carry out the 2016 constitutional amendment. Lawmakers in 2014 had approved limited use of non-euphoric cannabis.

Now that the DeSantis administration is moving ahead with the licensing process, health officials have put the Black farmer application at the top of the line.

“The department’s rule and application form appear to be very comprehensive and will take some time to fully digest,” medical-marijuana industry attorney Jim McKee told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. McKee predicted applications would be due within the next three to four months, unless the application is challenged.

The state’s application process and awarding licenses in the past sparked litigation that dragged on for years. But an emergency rulemaking process used for the Black farmer license involves an expedited procedure for challenges, meaning the license potentially could be awarded within months.

Applicants for the Black farmer license will have to pay a $146,000 non-refundable application fee, which is more than double what prospective operators paid when competing for licenses in 2015, the last time the application process was open.

The application released Thursday includes a point system for evaluation and detailed instructions. Applications will be scored on issues such as plans for cultivation, processing, dispensing and security, as well as issues such as certified financial documents and available funding.

Prospective applicants also will have to provide documentation showing they were recognized members in the “Pigford” class-action lawsuits that blamed the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discriminatory lending practices. Many of the claimants died before receiving their portions of a $1.3 billion settlement in the cases.

Black farmers complained that they were shut out of applying for the state’s original medical-marijuana licenses because none of them met the eligibility criteria, which required applicants to have operated as Florida nurseries for 30 years.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has pushed state health officials to move forward with the license. Black farmers have argued for years that it will be harder for them to compete in the medical marijuana market as existing operators have built their businesses and flourished.

Rouson, who is Black, told the News Service on Thursday that he hadn’t fully scrutinized the application but that it appeared to have a “short application period and a pretty hefty non-refundable” application fee.

“But I’m glad it’s out. The next step is to determine its efficacy and really take a hard look at the opportunity. And I’m reminded still that it took a long time to get to this point, and we don’t need a long time in awarding a license,” he said.

Applications will be accepted at a Department of Health office in Tallahassee between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during a five-day window that has not been identified.

Although the rule and application published Thursday deal only with the Black farmer license, they are viewed as a template for the rest of the licenses due to come online. Existing licenses in Florida routinely sell for upwards of $50 million.

“There will certainly be a lot of interest in this particular rule, given that it foreshadows what the department will likely expect in the next application process in which far more licenses are available,” McKee said.

Thursday’s release set off a splash among marijuana insiders.

Jeff Sharkey, founder of the state Medical Marijuana Business Association, called the Black farmer application an improvement over previous iterations of applications.

“It’s much more detailed, it’s much clearer about what’s required, and it’s much clearer about what they’re going to score and evaluate, so I’ve got to give them credit for that,” he said.

Dara Kam / News Service of Florida
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