Regulators of Florida’s medical marijuana industry are currently perusing applications from Black farmers for the highly sought license to grow marijuana.
The application window for new licenses, which were newly made available because of the growing number of medical marijuana patients, lasted from March 21-25. But after a five-year wait, it’s still unclear when a decision will be made on which applicant will get a license.
The Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use oversees the industry and is reviewing the licenses. Florida Politics has requested the applications from DOH, but the agency didn’t answer questions about how many applicants applied and how long its process would take.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he reached out to Surgeon General Joe Ladapo the week after the application window to request information on the process, but hasn’t received it. He’ll be writing a formal letter soon to request an update.
Rouson has pressed regulators on the slow pace of awarding licenses to Black farmers. Anecdotally, Rouson said he’s heard from some of the applicants and their representatives and believes there are 12 entities now in the running.
“I’ve been told the Department is reviewing the applications to make sure of their eligibility but that’s all,” Rouson told Florida Politics. “I’m stymied.”
The process for Black farmers to get a license started with the law passed by the Legislature after voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for medical use.
The law required licensees to be “vertically integrated,” meaning they must own and control all modes of production, distribution and sale of the marijuana. It also capped licenses based on the number of approved medical marijuana patients. As of 2021, the nonrefundable application fee was placed at $60,000.
Critics argued those parameters, as well as another requiring applicants to have been in business 30 years to receive a license — a requirement later reduced to five years — worked to block the licenses from Black farmers.
As of Friday, there were 22 license holders with 420 dispensing locations (yes, that’s the real number), according to DOH statistics. There are 2,406 qualified physicians with 710,470 medical marijuana patients.
But the law also required one license go to a Black-owned business that was a member of the class-action lawsuit settled in 1999 over racial discrimination against Black farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Pigford v. Glickman) in doling out farm loans in the 1980s and 1990s.
The license for the Black farmer was supposed to be issued by Oct. 3, 2017. But a lawsuit over the rest of the medical marijuana law, challenging the virtual integration requirement, stalled implementation of the law and the license.
That case ended last year when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Legislature and the DOH. But Rouson and others have criticized the DOH for not moving to issue a license to a Pigford applicant sooner. The agency issued an emergency rule earlier this year setting the application window for late March.
As the wait for the case to be resolved dragged on, however, the cost to apply went up to $146,000 because of the increase in patients.
Rouson tacked an amendment onto SB 768, the DOH package bill this year, allowing an eligible applicant who doesn’t get a license to roll over the application fee into the next application window. The bill passed unanimously and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week. It takes effect July 1.
“But for the litigation holding things up, they would’ve been able to pay a lower application fee,” Rouson said. “So I didn’t think it was right that now they have to pay a nonrefundable fee — almost triple the amount.”