After months of waiting, five new medical marijuana growers won’t be getting their state-issued licenses to cultivate and sell the state’s newest prescription drug on time. On Friday, state officials said Florida will miss the deadline to dole out five new licenses to cultivate and sell medical marijuana in the Sunshine State.
According to a recently-passed law, state health officials were supposed to distribute 10 medical marijuana licenses by Oct. 3 -- Tuesday -- to new growers attempting to capitalize on the state’s fast-growing and highly competitive medical marijuana industry.
Now it appears those growers hoping to cash in on the growing market will have to wait a little longer for their “in” to the medical pot business.
Christian Bax, the executive director of the state’s medical marijuana office, said Friday there would be a delay in issuing the licenses in part due to Hurricane Irma and a recently-filed lawsuit from a black farmer which alleges a portion of the state’s new medical marijuana law is unconstitutional.
Last month, a black farmer from Panama City filed a lawsuit against the legislation in Leon County circuit court, alleging the state’s newest law on medical marijuana is unconstitutional because it is “unfairly” narrow.
The farmer, Columbus Smith, said there are 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.
In a letter sent to state lawmakers, Bax implied Smith’s lawsuit was, in part, why the state was behind in issuing the new licenses.
“The OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) is aware of its important role in continuing to move this process forward to provide patient access as quickly and safely as possible,” Bax wrote. “However, recent history has emphasized the importance of getting the MMTC (medical marijuana treatment center) licensure process right the first time.”
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 -- but many insiders have been apprehensive about the licensing process, questioning whether the process would actually give each grower a fair and equal shot at one of the license slots.
“It’s not just unlikely. It is literally impossible,” said Ben Pollara, medical marijuana advocate and campaign manager for United For Care, of the Oct. 3 deadline.
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.
Smith’s lawsuit isn’t the only one raging on in the state court system. According to Bax, 13 legal challenges have been filed against the agency since the first licenses were issued in 2015 and two of those suits are ongoing.
Health officials issued an emergency rule last week establishing the application process for vendors looking to obtain a license to grow and distribute the drug, using outside experts to “blind test” the applications.
State law requires the state to issue more licenses when the state’s medical marijuana registry reaches 100,000. The number of patients in the Compassionate Use Registry currently hovers around 38,000.
A new deadline for the licenses has yet to be determined.