TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Black farmers with ties to doing business in Florida will be able to apply for one of the state’s highly sought-after medical marijuana licenses in March, according to an emergency rule published this week by state health officials.
The Department of Health will accept applications for the single Black farmer license from March 21 through March 25, the notice said.
The application period will be the first opportunity for prospective medical-marijuana operators to vie for a Florida license since 2015, after lawmakers in 2014 legalized marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing THC for patients with a handful of medical conditions.
After voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana, the Legislature passed a law creating a framework for Florida’s cannabis 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 applicants for medical marijuana licenses 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 health department in October rolled out emergency rules outlining the application process for the Black farmer license but until late Thursday did not reveal when applications would be accepted.
Industry lawyer John Lockwood called the announcement of the March application window “a significant milestone” for the state.
“This has been a long saga. It’s been a long time coming but it’s due. I think it’s a big milestone that the state has got to a point (where) they’re in a solid regulatory environment now. They’re able to officially regulate the industry but simultaneously fulfill their statutory duties and start pushing out some of these licenses,” he told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Friday.
Top aides in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration earlier this year said they were prioritizing the Black farmer license before opening up applications for 19 other licenses required under the 2017 law, which linked the number of licenses to increases in the state’s eligible medical-marijuana patients. The number of patients has continued to climb steadily over the past four years.
State administrators blamed delays in the award of licenses on lawsuits and other legal challenges, which dragged on for years as Florida’s initial license holders flourished. Currently, the state has 22 licensed operators and hundreds of dispensaries scattered throughout Florida.
Critics, however, have blasted the state for failing to allow a Black farmer to earlier enter one of the nation’s most coveted cannabis markets, especially since the Legislature intended for a Black grower to be among Florida’s first medical-marijuana operators.
With applications now due by the end of March, health regulators could award the Black farmer license in mid-summer. That could kick off a frenzy of medical-marijuana licensure activity that’s been in limbo for years.
The Pigford application likely will serve as a template for the process to award the larger batch of licenses and almost certainly will result in legal and administrative challenges, as investors from around the world wrangle for the first opportunity in six years to join Florida’s “green rush.”
“For everybody that’s looking to get into the state, this is a really positive development,” Lockwood said of the department setting the March application window.
Under the rules laid out by the department in October, applicants must pay a $146,000 fee to compete for the Black farmer license -- more than twice the roughly $60,000 fee from the application process in 2015.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor next year, has blasted the six-figure nonrefundable fee and asked Attorney General Ashley Moody to conduct an investigation into whether it is intentionally discriminatory.
“The way that the state of Florida has handled the medical marijuana licensure process for Black farmers is completely unacceptable and discriminatory on its face. We should be leveling the playing field for Black farmers who have faced discrimination and other structural obstacles in the farming industry, not doubling their fees and creating additional regulatory burdens for them,” Fried, a former medical-marijuana lobbyist, said in a prepared statement Friday.
The Black farmer license could face other obstacles.
For example, the 2017 law required state health officials to grant licenses to medical-marijuana applicants who were rejected in the first round of licensing and were involved in litigation over the licenses. That could spark administrative challenges once the Pigford license is granted.
And other aspects of the law could prove tricky for Black farmers.
Many of the claimants in the class-action lawsuits are now octogenarians or are deceased. Some may have operated their farming businesses under different names than the names under which they joined the legal challenges. With start-up costs for marijuana operations ranging between $15 million to $20 million, investors are exploring a variety of ways to meet the Pigford license eligibility requirements. The structures of the applicants’ businesses will likely come under strict scrutiny by the state and by competitors.
The law doesn’t require Pigford applicants to have resided in Florida while participating in the decades-old class-action lawsuits. But other portions of the law require applicants to have been “registered to do business in the state” for “five consecutive years before submitting the application.”
Tallahassee attorney Jim McKee said the state rule for the Black farmer license “recognizes and implements both of those statutory requirements and provides applicants numerous options to demonstrate they meet the five-year registration requirement.”
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