Four years into Florida’s medical marijuana program, no Black farmers have obtained grow licenses, and now the state has jacked up fees. That has led Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to implore Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo to reconsider the recent fee changes she says are discriminatory.
At the same time, the Democratic candidate for Governor slammed Ladapo — saying he should not be Florida’s Surgeon General.
Finally — even after Fried pointed out that she was asking Ladapo to help Florida’s Black farmers, not her — she also noted she does not expect to hear back from Ladapo’s Department of Health on her inquiry about the new rules, because the department was not responding to previous inquiries.
Fried’s news conference Tuesday afternoon in Orlando illustrated a deep partisan divide, where the state’s top Democratic official, albeit a challenger to and constant critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis, can appeal to the state’s top doctor on behalf of farmers, call for his ouster, and lament that his department hasn’t been responsive to her, all in less than 20 minutes.
Ladapo had stated his position on the medical marijuana rule and fee Oct. 14 in a tweet, following Fried’s original criticism, noting that the rule-making and fee are locked by statute, and the department was following statutory requirements. He also contended that the department prioritized licensing for Black farmers. He also criticized Fried, noting that she is a former medical marijuana lobbyist.
On Tuesday Fried made her case, along with Democratic Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando and Black farmers and advocates, that the state’s embattled Health Department head should reexamine Black farmers’ opportunities in the state’s medical marijuana licensing program.
“He’s not helping me out. He’s helping out our minority farmers. This is not about me. Certainly, he should be doing what’s right for the community,” Fried said. “In the same respect, I do not believe he is qualified to be holding the Surgeon General position.”
Fried highlighted some of the controversies Ladapo has faced, including his encounter last week with Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky, a breast cancer patient who asked Ladapo to put on a mask, and then threw him out of her office when he wouldn’t. Even before then, Fried has been among the most outspoken of many Democrats decrying Ladapo’s policy statements downplaying the efficacy of masks and vaccinations to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, though, she made a direct appeal for help from Ladapo, as did Thompson, Minorities for Medical Marijuana Chair Erik Range, and Raymond Warthen, founder of Infinite Zion Farms in the Parramore neighborhood, who also is a farmer hoping to apply for a medical marijuana grow license.
When Florida’s medical marijuana program was implemented in 2017, a federal class-action discrimination lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was just being decided, finding that Black farmers were systematically discriminated against. Florida agreed to set aside a medical marijuana grow license for a plaintiff from that suit.
Florida has now issued 22 grow licenses, but still none to Black farmers, which Fried called “a travesty.”
Last week, in an emergency rule, the Department of Health finally released the application for farmers who are among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs to apply for that set-aside license. But the application fee was raised to $146,000, up from the $60,000 that the initial license bidders had to pay.
“I am asking the Department of Health to revisit this emergency rule that has taken them five years to put out … and now go back and fix this. If anything, the fees should be decreased, or minimized to almost zero, which we have seen in other states across the country that have recognized that we have a social justice situation,” Fried said.
“I’m asking again, our new Surgeon General, who is new to the state of Florida, to go back and revisit this rule and make sure that we are creating an opportunity for these Black farmers to participate,” she said.
Two sentences later, she weighed in on Ladapo’s Senate confirmation process.
“I have asked, and will be asking the Senate to not confirm his appointment,” she said. “What he has done in his last few weeks since he has been here in the state of Florida is spread misinformation, has continued to increase the political rhetoric around masking, around vaccinations, about going after our school board members. And this past week, having encountered one of our senators in our state who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, (he) refused to put on a mask to go into (her) office. He should not be our Surgeon General. He should not be someone who is in charge of our health care policies in the state of Florida.”
Thompson followed by pointing out that when she was in the Florida Senate she believed the initial medical marijuana rules already discriminated against Black farmers. Now, she said minority farmers would be “greatly challenged” to be able to pay the current application fee.”
“I am here today to say we need to finish the job that we started when I was in the Senate and make sure that the Pigford plaintiffs have an opportunity to participate in this growing industry in the state of Florida,” Thompson said. “We want minority farmers to have the opportunity to own the farms, to provide the jobs, and to benefit from the growing industry that is cannabis here in the state of Floria. So we are asking our Surgeon General to rethink this requirement.”
Last week, Fried first raised the issue regarding the new rule and the high fee with a letter to various state officials complaining about it. She asked the Department of Health for an explanation for the new fee.
She said Tuesday she has not received a response.
“And we probably don’t anticipate one considering we still have a numerous amount of public records requests from the Department of Health that they too have not fulfilled.”