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 selected a black farmer to receive a license to grow and dispense medical cannabis last year, two bills coming up for consideration in the 2023 legislative session propose to significantly expand the field.
The 2017 law that implemented Florida’s cannabis program included a provision that a medical marijuana treatment center license would go to a farmer who had received a settlement in Pigford v. Glickman case. Plaintiffs in the decades-old lawsuit alleged that the USDA discriminated against black farmers when awarding loans and aid.
After a five-year delay, the Florida Department of Health issued a license to a Pigford applicant in September. The winner was Terry Donnell Gwinn, a farmer in North Florida. The 11 other Pigford applicants who were not selected have since challenged the state’s decision.
Orlando Rep. Bruce Antone and some of his Democratic colleagues want to help the rejected farmers. House Bill 493 would grant licenses to those applicants denied under the Pigford process. It would also enable descendants of the Pigford processes to apply for licenses as part of this protected class. Under the legislation, Pigford litigants, their descendants and joint venture partners of Pigford applicants will receive the maximum number of points possible for their diversity plans when applying for licences. The Office of Medical Marihuana Use uses a points system to select applications.
One of the rejected applicants, Leona Robinson of Escambia County, highlights the need to expand the license pool, Rep. Anthony Orlando Weekly.
“In the case of Ms. Leona Robinson, who I’m trying to help with this bill, she’s 100 years old,” Antone said. “She’s not out there with a box trying to grow any crops, but she uses 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 not settled until 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 to select a Pigford farmer has added insult to injury. An 84-year-old Ocala resident, Moton Hopkins, got the highest score on his application, but died while waiting for the license to be issued.
“Any interest that Mr. Hopkins had in the MMTC application ceased upon Mr. Hopkins’ death, as the license qualifications are personal to Mr. Hopkins and do not accrue to third parties,” health officials wrote in rejecting his application.
Lawyers for the team behind Hopkins’ filing 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, would also grant licenses to Pigford applicants. St. Petersburg Sen. Darryl Rouson, sponsor of SB 1356, has worked for years to get a license for a black farmer in Florida. In contrast to Rep. Antone’s bill, Rouson’s measure does not include heirs to the Pigford lawsuits. Antone says he and Rouson have yet to talk about their similar legislation.
Antone and Rouson’s bill is similar to the language in the law implementing the medical cannabis program. The 2017 law offered licenses to applicants who were denied access to the 2014 low-THC cannabis program, which preceded the voter-approved medical program. In 2018 and 2019, the Ministry of Health issued nine licenses to these applicants.
Although it acted more quickly than with the Pigford applicants, the Department of Health was also slow to issue these nine licences. It was finally set in motion after a 2018 ruling by Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham that slammed the Office of Medical Marijuana Use’s point system for selecting applications.
“The ledger and the score card are not contemporary tablets of stone on which the erroneous law was inscribed by 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 yearlong standup. Still, Antone says only a select few participate in the billion-dollar industry.
“We’ve got some legislation now that will hopefully allow additional African-American farmers, people who are descendants of the Pigford farmers, to take advantage of this opportunity and make some money selling medical marijuana.”
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