A Panama City black farmer is alleging the state’s newest law on medical marijuana is unconstitutional, prompting questions about just who, if anyone, qualifies for a special license to grow and distribute medical marijuana in the Sunshine State.
Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, filed the lawsuit challenging the new law Friday in Leon County circuit court, alleging that the new law is unfairly narrow -- with so many restrictions -- that only a very small number of black farmers can qualify to get one of the coveted licenses to grow medical pot in Florida.
State legislators gathered in Tallahassee over the summer to create a regulatory system to expand the use of medical marijuana after voters passed Amendment 2 last fall.
One of the key components of the new law: Florida would dole out 10 highly sought-after licenses to growers by Oct. 3 -- and one of those licenses would go to a black farmer who was part of a 30 year-old lawsuit.
To qualify, black farmers must have participated in the Pigford v. Glickman case, a lengthy lawsuit which began in 1981 and spanned nearly two decades.
In the 1980s, black farmers alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture racially discriminated against black farmers in a myriad of ways, marginalizing minority farmers by increasing land tax, delaying loans until the end of planting season and only approving a small amount of black farmers’ loan requests.
Black farmers struggled to succeed in the farming industry and as a result, the number of black farmers plummeted in the 1990s -- by nearly 100 percent.
Who, exactly, qualifies for the license has been a mystery -- Florida has apparently been looking to even the playing field for farmers of color when it comes to growing medical marijuana by diversifying the pool to make the process fairer for minorities.
According to Smith, the process has been anything but.
Smith alleges the new law is an example of an unconstitutional “special law” since farmers must also be members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, which for reasons unknown is not accepting new members.
Smith says the process has been confusing and shuts out a large number of farmers who want to cash in on the industry.
“There is no rational basis for limiting the opportunity of black farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license to only the few members of that class of black farmers who are also member of a specific private association,” the lawsuit read.
The exact number of black farmers who actually qualify to get one of the state’s coveted licenses remains a mystery.
USDA data shows only 284 claims prevailed in the Pigman case in Florida. Other states, like Alabama and Mississippi, had more than 3,000 prevailing claimants each.
“That information is very hard to come by,” Howard Gunn, Jr., president of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, told Sunshine State News in June.
Gunn has previously gone on record saying there was not a great number of black farmers on the books in the '80s. Fierce competition and an unfair playing field caused some to call it quits early, meaning the same black farmers who were operating 30 years ago might not even be around anymore.
“There weren’t that many black farmers 30 years ago in the nursery business,” Gunn told FOX News in 2015. “Because of that, we weren’t able to produce as much or be as profitable as [other] farmers.”
Smith’s lawsuit seeks an injunction against the Florida Department of Health’s issuing a license related to the black farmer portion of the law.
When asked how many class members participated in the lawsuit in Florida in June, Black Farmers Agriculturalist Association Vice President Latresia Wilson refused to disclose who would be vying for the licenses, if anyone.
“We are going to hold that information back,” she told SSN. “Once the applications are turned in, then that will become public information."
The applications have still not been made public. The black farmer qualifying for the one license is, at this point, uncertain as well.