Years after lawmakers ordered Florida officials to grant a medical marijuana license to a Black farmer, it hasn’t happened

Black farmers have waited more than four years to vie for a license to participate in Florida’s lucrative medical-marijuana industry.

But it’s still unknown exactly how much longer they’ll have to continue to bide their time, according to testimony from state Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Chris Ferguson.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, ordered Ferguson to appear before his committee Thursday to explain why — years after lawmakers ordered state health officials to grant a medical-marijuana license to a Black farmer — the directive hasn’t been carried out.

Part of a 2017 law requires health officials to award 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.

Ferguson told the committee Thursday that the rulemaking process for the Black farmer application will begin soon and repeatedly assured senators that the license is a “priority” for his office.

“We are working quickly and anticipate moving forward with the Pigford MMTC licensing process in the coming weeks. That is a priority for the department to move forward,” he said, using an acronym for medical marijuana treatment centers, the state’s term for marijuana businesses.

But state health officials put the application process on hold for years, saying they needed to await the outcome of a Florida Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit challenging key parts of the 2017 law, which carried out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The court in May upheld a requirement in the law, known as vertical integration, that medical marijuana operators handle all aspects of the business, including cultivation, processing and distributing —- as opposed to companies being able to focus on individual components of the industry.

Senior aides to Gov. Ron DeSantis told the News Service of Florida in mid-June that a Black farmer with ties to doing business in Florida would be at the head of the line for one of a long-awaited batch of licenses that will nearly double the number of medical marijuana operators in the state and that the application process for the Black farmer license would begin “within weeks to months.”

But applications for the Black farmers haven’t launched yet.

“Why was this held up? Hopefully today sends a message that there are people ready to apply and that need the opportunity to participate in this business,” Rouson told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.

Florida has 22 licensed operators, which have more than 200 retail sites across the state and serve more than 600,000 patients. Under state law, health officials are required to grant 19 additional licenses, based on factors such as the number of patients who are qualified for cannabis treatment.

But Rouson and Sen. Perry Thurston, who are Black, expressed frustration that Black farmers have been sidelined while already-licensed companies have established a firm foothold in the rapidly burgeoning medical-marijuana industry. The number of qualified patients grows by between 15,000 and 20,000 each month, Ferguson said Thursday.

Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, pressed Ferguson to explain why legal wrangling over the state’s vertical-integration process stymied health officials from moving forward with a Black farmer license.

“I’m just having a little problem seeing why this delay in the litigation on the vertical integration would have anything to do with the delay for the Black farmers’ license,” Thurston, a lawyer, said.

“It’s very comprehensive, the requirements to operate as a vertically integrated medical-marijuana treatment center in the state of Florida. But, I can say that it’s very close for us to be issuing a rule moving forward,” said Ferguson, who declined to answer questions from reporters.

His answers, however, didn’t satisfy Thurston.

“We’ve got this booming industry and there is no participation. The one entity that we designated to participate has been denied the ability to participate, and the denial has nothing to do with them,” he said after the meeting.

Thurston said he’s been contacted by Black farmers who are eager to have a chance to join the industry.

“They’re asking me what’s the holdup, what’s the problem. There are a number of groups out there that are trying to participate, and I think they’ve got their ducks in a row, but it’s the department that’s not working,” Thurston.

For many Black farmers, the delay is an ugly reminder of the discrimination that led to the Pigford lawsuits. Disparities in lending and federal assistance continue today, according to a presentation to the committee by Dãnia Davey, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

But Rouson pledged that his committee would pursue the issue during the legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

“The plight of the Black farmer in this state is real,” he said.

Many of the Black farmers who made claims in the federal class-action lawsuit have died, and most surviving litigants are now in their 80s and 90s.

Pigford applicants will try to enter an established medical-marijuana market where licenses are selling for up to $50 million.

An initial round of licenses were granted in 2015 to operators seeking to sell low-THC cannabis. They were later allowed to sell full-strength cannabis after voters approved the 2016 constitutional amendment.

“How do you fight that type of situation? Where do we go from there?” Howard Gunn, a Black farmer who said he is affiliated with some Florida Pigford claimants, told the News Service in June. “There’s no way that we’re going to be able to keep up with that. And it is not going to change. They get further and further ahead. Now that we’re playing catch up, we’re just going to have to be more strategic.”

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this story.

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