How long will it take Florida to issue one Black farmer a marijuana grow license?

Ray Warthen, owner of Infinite Zion Farms in Parramore, would like to apply for a license to grow medical marijuana
Ray Warthen, owner of Infinite Zion Farms in Parramore, would like to apply for a license to grow medical marijuana photo by Eric Tegethoff

This spring, the Florida Department of Health did something that had seemed like it might never happen: It opened up a five-day window for Black farmers to apply for a license to grow and sell medical marijuana.

The move — required by law — was nearly five years late.

For the Black farmers who qualified, the application process that opened on March 21 came with hurdles. They had to slog through 70 pages of instructions from the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. There was a nonrefundable application fee of $146,000 — upped significantly from the $60,830 fee for past applicants. And, per the 2017 law that implemented the medical marijuana amendment, they had to be farmers who had received a settlement in the Pigford v. Glickman case.

Plaintiffs in that two-decades-old case alleged the United States Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers when doling out loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996. The case was settled in 1999, resulting in the largest civil rights payout in U.S. history — more than $1 billion. Another round topping $1.2 billion went out in 2013 for those who missed the first payout.

Still, it's estimated there are only about 100 settlement recipients alive in Florida today, and most of them are long past retirement age.

This requirement has dashed the hopes of younger Black farmers like Ray Warthen, who founded Infinite Zion Farms with his wife. Their South Street farm is a block of green vegetables in the Parramore neighborhood that provides fresh produce to the community.

"It's unfair to only have one [license] for the Pigford case and no other exceptions made for other Black farmers who are so far behind everyone else," Warthen tells Orlando Weekly. "We're five years behind all the other companies that already are producing medical marijuana."

Warthen has been outspoken about his desire to grow medical marijuana. He has a license to grow hemp — marijuana's federally approved, non-psychoactive cousin that is the basis for all those CBD products on shelves these days — at his South Street farm. But he's also purchased a 10-acre citrus farm in Groveland, about 30 miles west of Orlando, where he hopes to one day grow marijuana. One of his ambitions is to discover a cannabis strain that's tolerant of Florida's heat, humidity and rain.

"That's my goal — to have my own strain one day." Warthen said. "The Zion strain." Warthen plans to wait for future rounds to apply for a license. But when the state might accept more applications is unclear. The medical plant's history in Florida proves it's been a struggle for most farmers to get their hands on one — least of all the state's Black farmers.

The final tally legalizing medical marijuana in 2016 showed undeniable evidence Floridians were ready for change, with 71 percent approving of it — the same year 49 percent cast their vote for Donald Trump. Amendment 2, the Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, ensured people with qualifying medical conditions had legal access to the plant.

State lawmakers, too, had been evolving on cannabis. Two years before Amendment 2 passed, they approved a low-THC medical program. There were highly specific qualifications to grow and sell under this program. Candidates were required to have 30 continuous years of experience in nurseries and the ability to grow at least 400,000 plants, raising suspicions that legislators had crafted the requirements with certain well-connected growers in mind.

The first nurseries approved under that program make up the backbone of some of the most profitable medical marijuana companies in the state, including Trulieve and Curaleaf.

Lawmakers opened up qualifications for medical marijuana treatment centers when they implemented Amendment 2 in June 2017. They reduced requirements to five years of business within the state. And they also required that one of the licenses go to a Black farmer who had been part of the Pigford case.

It took them about three months to break that promise. The law stipulated the license must go out by Oct. 3, 2017. But the program was bogged down with legal challenges nearly from the start, including a ban on smoking the plant. (John Morgan, the self-described "pot daddy" himself, filed a lawsuit against this prohibition. Gov. Ron DeSantis removed the smoking ban in 2019.)

From the very beginning, the Office of Medical Marijuana Use has slow-walked the licensing process. The last time the state approved new medical marijuana treatment centers was in 2019 — and that was because of a settlement with eight nurseries that were turned down during the first round of licensing for the low-THC program in 2015. Sanctuary Medicinals, which partners with Apopka-based Dewar Nurseries, is the only one of those companies to make a meaningful dent in the industry so far.

A Florida Supreme Court decision from June 2021 appears to be changing this. The verdict upheld the requirement that license-holders are responsible for marijuana from seed to sale, underscoring that big bucks are needed to get into the industry. Known as vertical integration, the industry setup means businesses solely interested in the agriculture side, for instance, need to find partners to run the transport, processing and retail side.

The Office of Medical Marijuana Use says it was waiting on the decision before it began issuing licenses again. In October 2021, it issued an emergency rule saying it would kick-start the application process for a Black farmer.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, for one, was still unimpressed. The same month the emergency rule was announced, Fried appeared at Infinite Zion Farms alongside Warthen, describing the new application fee as discriminatory and calling for an investigation.

"Of course," Fried tells Orlando Weekly, "Gov. DeSantis' Department of Health has not moved forward on any investigation, and has not even apologized or come up with any explanation for why there was a doubling of the fee right before the only minority-owned licensee application goes out."

Fried has financial ties to the medical marijuana industry and has long supported making it legal for adult recreational use. She's also running for governor against DeSantis this year.

One explanation Warthen and others have received for the higher fee is that it's needed to cover the process of looking through applications. Fried doesn't buy it.

"They have already outsourced the review of these applications and have financial resources in order to pay for it," she says.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on the fee or the application process for Pigford class members.

The $146,000 price tag for applications could stick as the state catches up on licenses. At the beginning of April, Florida surpassed 700,000 medical marijuana patients. Every time the state adds 100,000 patients, it also has to license another four medical marijuana treatment centers. Suffice it to say the Department of Health has some catching up to do.

For Warthen, this is a matter of medicine. He became interested in medical marijuana when his father got ill, and has himself used CBD for anxiety and high blood pressure since he passed away. But like food deserts, Warthen says Black communities in Orlando are MMJ deserts.

"It's available for the haves, but not the have-nots," Warthen said. "Not only Parramore — you have Holden Heights, you have Pine Hills, every single Black or urban neighborhood in the city, that's not available. And these elderly people are ailing from the same issues that everyone else has but there are no resources there for them."

The Department of Health hasn't yet announced who will receive the license reserved for a Black farmer. It's possible the license will go to a Pigford class member outside of Florida. According to the application, if a business entity is applying, only that entity needs to prove it has been registered to do business in the state of Florida for the previous five years — not necessarily the qualifying farmer.

At one time, it looked like at least a handful of Black farmers could get a golden opportunity to be part of a billion-dollar industry. Five years later, they could be shut out all over again.

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