TALLAHASSEE — When Florida lawmakers vote today on sweeping legislation expanding access to medical marijuana, they'll also be approving a sweetener for the state's citrus industry.
Tucked into the legislation, which establishes a system for patients to buy cannabis, is language that requires the Department of Health to give preferential treatment to companies that promise to convert orange juice factories and other citrus-processing facilities into marijuana grow sites.
The reason, lawmakers say, is to replenish Florida's signature citrus industry. It has struggled to combat the greening that has devastated its crops and shaken the rural communities that depend on groves and the factories that process oranges and grapefruits.
"Why don't we just take a close look at turning some of those factories into something new where jobs can be created and it can be a Florida business?" said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
But just who is that going to benefit? And who demanded it be in the bill?
Lawmakers haven't been clear.
The language appears to favor some major agricultural interests. As they evaluate who will be awarded two of five new competitive licenses to grow and sell pot, health officials would give preference to companies that plan to use facilities "used for the canning, concentrating or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses," according to a key clause.
That could apply to some of the nation's largest brands, like Tropicana and Coca-Cola; less recognizable ones such as Louis Dreyfus Citrus and Tampa Juice Service; and sugar companies that grow citrus or produce molasses, such as U.S. Sugar. They would have to apply for a medical marijuana grower's license and convert their facilities, and it's not yet clear which companies have interest in doing so.
The Florida Citrus Processors Association did not respond to a phone call Thursday. In a statement Friday, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the company has nothing to do with the language.
"Our company has NOT been engaged in any way with any member of the Florida Legislature regarding medical marijuana," she said.
If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the legislation would give them a major advantage in what will be a hotly contested bid to enter the Florida medical marijuana market, which could generate $1 billion a year in sales by 2019, according to industry analysts.
While the intent with voters that approved legalization of pot was on patient access — 71 percent supported it in November — the citrus carve-out was the latest example of how legislative deals are driven by money and potential profits.
Democrats expressed outrage Thursday, accusing Republicans of cutting a deal to help select special interests.
"It's clear the language is written to benefit specific groups and specific companies," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "They know who is going to benefit. We don't. And they are writing a bill that benefits these groups."
Senators pushed for the language during closed-door negotiations in recent weeks with the House. Asked which member of the Senate wanted it put in the bill, Bradley said the idea came about "organically." And, he said, it wasn't done on behalf of any specific companies.
"I'm not aware of any specific companies," he said.
He also said that because it is a preference, not a guaranteed license, the department could give zero licenses to citrus companies.
Challenged on the floor by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, senators voted 20-16 to keep the language in the bill.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who was also involved in the negotiations, said he had "no knowledge" of whether any citrus-processing companies wanted to enter the medical marijuana industry.
Lawmakers see overlap between citrus and marijuana because both are plants and require agricultural experience to grow them well.
That misses the point, though, said Amy Margolis, a lawyer with Florida-based law firm Greenspoon Marder who also founded the Oregon Cannabis Association.
Language giving preferential treatment refers to the people who turn oranges into juices and jams, not those who grow them, she said. What's more, Margolis added, cannabis is unique among plants.
"They're growing citrus and making it into juice," Margolis said. "That has no relation to cannabis cultivation or cannabis processing."
Some citrus processors make essential oils, she acknowledged, but even those processes are different from creating many cannabis products.
Orange juice companies aren't the only groups that could benefit from lawmakers' bill. A third license has been reserved for members of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.
The bill also grants a license automatically to five growers who applied under a more limited medical marijuana program established by lawmakers in 2014. They are Loop's Nursery and Greenhouses in Northeast Florida; Treadwell Nursery in Central Florida; and 3 Boys Farm, Plants of Ruskin and Sun Bulb Co. in Southwest Florida.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at email@example.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.