Florida’s Department of Health is reviewing a request for a medical cannabis license for a minority-owned farm in rural Miami-Dade County.

Despite the fact that Florida has little to no history of growing cannabis, two Black farmers were granted licenses to grow it after a lawsuit by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). This is an incredible victory for Blacks in Florida, and it has been welcomed by the NAACP and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA).

A black farmer with ties to Florida businesses will be at the front of the queue for a long-awaited batch of medical marijuana licenses in an application process that state health officials will launch soon, said senior advisers to gov. Ron DeSantis.

Employees told the Florida News Service that in the coming weeks or months, the health department will begin the regulatory process for black crop applicants and set the stage for a new round of licensing, nearly doubling the number of medical marijuana operators in the state.

It would be great if we could get that application, that permit. We’re definitely behind on that, said Howard Gunn, the operator of the nursery in Ocala, which is black, in a telephone interview.

Following a long-awaited Florida Supreme Court decision last month upholding a 2017 law that implemented a 2016 constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana, state health officials are ready to begin the application process. The court upheld the law’s requirement that medical marijuana operators engage in all aspects of the business, including cultivation, processing and distribution, as opposed to companies that may focus on only one aspect. Florigrown LLC of Tampa, which challenged the law, was given 11 points. June to request a rehearing, but did not do so.

Part of the 2017 law requires health departments to issue a license to an applicant who is a recognized class member in a decades-old lawsuit known as the Pigford cases, over racial discrimination against black farmers by federal officials.

Florida currently has 22 licensed operators, known as Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTCs), with more than 200 outlets across the state.

However, the number of licensed operators is significantly lower than the portion of the 2017 law that required additional licenses as the number of qualified patients increased, now near 600,000. The law requires DHS officials to add 15 MMTCs to the existing 22 carriers. When the number of patients reaches the 600,000 mark, which should be in the next few months, the number of new licenses will increase to 19.

State officials will first focus on issuing a license to a black farmer who meets certain conditions, including being a party to the Pigford lawsuit. Many of the black farmers who had filed the federal class action have since died, and most surviving plaintiffs are now in their 80s or 90s.

Pigford’s candidates will try to tap into the established medical marijuana market, where licenses can fetch up to $50 million. In 2015, the first round of licenses was granted to operators who wanted to sell cannabis with low THC content. They were then allowed to sell strong cannabis after the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016.

How do you deal with this situation? What are we going to do now? Gunn, who says he is in contact with some of Pigford’s suitors in Florida, told the News Service. There’s no way to hold on. And that won’t change. The lead is getting bigger and bigger. Now that we’ve caught up, we just need to be more strategic.

The upcoming set of black farmer application rules will likely serve as a model for the broader permitting process and will almost certainly lead to legal and administrative challenges as investors from around the world vie for the first chance in six years to participate in Florida’s green madness.

The law does not require the Pigford plaintiff to reside in Florida while participating in the class action. Under other parts of the law, however, applicants must have been registered to do business in the state for five years before they can apply.

DeSanti aides said applicants for the black farmer’s license must meet all other requirements of the law, including registering to do business in Florida for at least five years.

It is unclear how the state’s interpretation of the law will affect business partnerships between members of the Pigford group and investors seeking to locate in Florida.

Players in the medical marijuana industry are very creative, senior DeSantis officials say.

I think they will find ways for all contenders, not just Pigford, to bring in other key players, whether they are funders or senior producers. I think you will see many different strategies they use to put together a multidisciplinary team to make a full statement, said a senior official, who spoke on condition of confidentiality.

The interpretation of the law would reduce the number of Pigford patients eligible for licensure.

The DeSantis administration’s plan could also run into resistance from investors who partner with black farmers in other states in hopes of getting a permit. Medical marijuana industry insiders are divided on the health department’s approach.

The intent of the legislature is clear: To apply for a license, you need an applicant who is a member of the group in the Pigford lawsuit and owns a five-year-old business…, attorney Jim McKee, who represents both existing medical marijuana operators and potential new applicants, told the News Service.

Some in the industry believe that the Department’s interpretation of Pigford’s requirements for applicants – and the 2017 Act itself – is too restrictive and could severely limit the number of eligible applicants.

In the meantime, state health officials plan to use the power to issue emergency regulations to issue a proposed black farmer ordinance to speed up the process. The undeclared worker registration rule could go into effect before the end of the year, but potential problems make the timing of licensing unclear.

I can’t control the candidates. You have a market that has been there for a long time, and will almost double if we license all these applications. … So we should expect that the challengers will not be happy with the 19 new licensees. And then there are all those people who didn’t win, and we can expect those people to compete for those prizes as well. So we’re ready to act as quickly as possible in the best way possible, but we’re not naive about the fact that we might get a lot of questions that would slow us down, DeSantis’ aide said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Darryl Ruson, the St. Petersburg Democrat who has spearheaded the movement to grant black farmers licenses, said he plans to monitor health officials’ review of black farmers’ applications and licenses when the legislative committees reconvene later this year.

I’m glad it was granted and that it’s open, but I’m disappointed that once again we’re behind other licensees who have been operating for five or six years, Ruson said in an interview. As Chair of the Department of Agriculture, I intend to make the plight of black farmers one of my priorities in the next session, and I intend to talk to management to ensure that we are taking a leadership role in this area.

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