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Florida Black farmers were promised equity in marijuana. Some question it.

A state program authorized in 2017 to provide a Black farmer with a medical marijuana license hasn’t lived up to its promise, lawyers, advocates and applicants said.
 
Algene Hopkins, the widow of Moton Hopkins, stands outside her home in Ocala on Aug. 24. Her husband applied for a license to grow and sell medical marijuana in Florida. That quest was interrupted by his death in April 2022.
Algene Hopkins, the widow of Moton Hopkins, stands outside her home in Ocala on Aug. 24. Her husband applied for a license to grow and sell medical marijuana in Florida. That quest was interrupted by his death in April 2022. [ Shauna Muckle ]
Published Sept. 7, 2023

When Moton Hopkins died last year at 84, he left a key part of his legacy up for grabs.

Hopkins had for most of his life grown watermelon, cantaloupes, squash and hay in Ocala. He had stopped intensive farming a few years ago. But Hopkins, a Black man, applied in March 2022 for a Florida medical marijuana license to enter the lucrative field of medical marijuana cultivation.

He spent the last months of his life working with lawyers and investors to navigate the process. Submitting the application to the Florida Department of Health took $146,000, a nonrefundable fee charged by the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. Had he secured the license, Hopkins would have had an asset worth millions.

Three weeks after submitting his application, however, Hopkins died. Four months later, his partners notified the health department of his death after state officials reached out asking for samples of Hopkins’ fingerprints to complete his application.

Moton Hopkins Sr., in November 2021, months before his death. His widow, Algene, keeps the picture propped up on her kitchen table.
Moton Hopkins Sr., in November 2021, months before his death. His widow, Algene, keeps the picture propped up on her kitchen table. [ Shauna Muckle ]

In September 2022, Hopkins’ attorneys received a letter from the health department. Hopkins would have received a license based on the merits of his application, the letter said, but not now. His death changed that.

Neither his family nor his company, Hatchett Creek Farms, could inherit the license. His legal team has been fighting that decision ever since.

Hopkins’ story is just one piece of the legal battle that has ensued since the state passed a law in 2017 allowing some Black farmers to receive a medical marijuana growing license.

Twelve have applied, and it took six years before any Black applicants with a farming resume got one. Two farmers and their teams received a license in July, and each has paid a state-required $5 million bond to begin operations, according to a News Service of Florida report.

Like Hopkins’, most of those applications belong to older Black farmers — some retired — raising questions from people in the cannabis industry about whether they were merely recruited to serve as the face on the license application.

Hopkins wasn’t the only farmer who died waiting. So did 81-year-old Earkus Battle, a potato and soybean farmer, who died in 2020.

One of the former Black farmers who has applied for a license to grow cannabis, Leola T. Robinson of Escambia County, is 100 years old.

A representative for Robinson, who once farmed timber, cotton and seasonal vegetables, did not return two requests by phone and email seeking comment. On her application with the state, which the health department shares publicly, Robinson’s list of business partners are redacted, except for the name of her medical director, Jacksonville-based doctor Saman Soleymani.

Lawyers privy to the proceedings say Florida’s one carve-out for racial equity in cannabis has been beset by delays, litigation and questions, all while an aging group of applicants declines in health.

Meanwhile, groups of investors and lawyers have pounced on the opportunity to secure a license, said Tallahassee cannabis lobbyist Jeff Sharkey. New licenses may be worth anywhere from $10 million to $60 million, attorney and founder of Mr. Cannabis Law Dustin Robinson estimated.

Running a medical marijuana operation in Florida, where one company must grow, process, distribute, market and sell the product under state vertical integration laws, is a task for a corporation, not one farmer, said Matt Bowman, a Black farmer turned cannabis advocate. The applications from Black farmers, which the Times reviewed, include redacted lists of business partners and comprehensive business plans.

Earlier this summer, the state selected the first Black farmers to receive a license. Those applicants, Terry Donnell Gwinn and Shedrick McGriff, are not affiliated with each other. But both are associated with some of the highest-earning lobbyists in the state. Gwinn is represented by legal firm Foley and Lardner, and McGriff is represented by law firm Panza, Maurer and Maynard. The firm retains Brian Ballard, founder of lobbying and consulting firm Ballard Partners, as an “of counsel,” or affiliated, attorney.

Legal advisers and representatives for McGriff’s team and Gwinn’s team received at least two phone and two email requests for comment in mid-August and early September on the state of their licenses and the process it took to get them. Neither team responded.

Gwinn is 69 and McGriff is 62.

The advancing age of the farmers and the partnerships with lobbyists has some cannabis experts talking.

“Let’s say this person doesn’t have (cannabis) business acumen, and they don’t have capital, and you’re giving them a license to operate a vertically integrated business,” Robinson said. “I don’t really see how that serves social equity.”

Most likely, Robinson said, these licenses will end up sold for millions and out of the hands of these Black farmers. Or perhaps, he said, the farmers will maintain some ownership in the business while experienced executives take the lead.

A policy that benefits few

In 2015, Florida passed its first law dictating who could apply for a license to grow and sell medical marijuana. To apply, companies had to have existing farms with at least 400,000 plants. The state has so far issued a total of 22 medical marijuana licenses. Many have gone to corporations with well-oiled marijuana growing operations in other states.

The exclusion of smaller operations, some of them Black-owned, could have invited accusations of racial discrimination, said former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

So legislators designed an exception in a 2017 law that authorized more medical marijuana licenses, Fried said. A class of Black farmers who sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for loan discrimination in the 1990s could compete for a single operating license.

Black farmers who qualified to apply under the special exemption had to have been alive and farming since the 1970s or 1980s, Robinson said. That explains why none of the Black applicants is under the age of 60, according to Robinson.

“A good chunk of people who would have qualified were deceased,” Fried said. “(An applicant) couldn’t have been a family member (of the deceased person). It definitely was not conducive to the most robust amount of applicants, let’s just say that.”

At least three of the older farmers teamed with younger Black farmers to compete for a license. But they’re still entering an industry where 90% of cannabis C-Suite executives are white, according to a 2021 analysis by Business Insider, a national business publication.

To do anything with the license, Robinson said, the farmers would need a team of experienced cannabis investors, attorneys, accountants and lobbyists to set up operations. He believes that the likelihood of the aging farmers playing a role in day-to-day operations would be slim to none.

After the 2017 law was passed, it took five years before the health department, which houses the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, started accepting applications. That’s when 12 Black farmers applied. Six months later, in fall 2022, the health department selected a winner: Gwinn. Gwinn‘s application had received the highest score after Hopkins, who no longer qualified due to his death.

But Gwinn’s license was held up when the other 11 applicants, including Hopkins and McGriff, filed individual petitions raising questions about how their applications were scored. Those suits are no longer active, though they did spur legislation to fix the problem.

A new state law requires the health department to hand out more licenses to some Black farmers who lost out the first time. During this year’s legislative session, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, shepherded a law that allows the other applicants to correct errors in their application and resubmit. Any qualified applicant can now receive a license on this second try.

After that legislative fix, the state in July handed licenses to both Gwinn and a runner-up: McGriff, one of the 11 original applicants.

But not Hopkins. The law included a stipulation that if an applicant dies after receiving their denial letter, then the license may be passed on to their estate. Hopkins died before that letter was sent. Now, his legal team is arguing to a state appeals court that Hopkins’ company is still allowed to receive a license.

Rouson isn’t sure why the law, crafted by legislative staff with input from the health department, excluded Hopkins.

“The intent behind that was, if an applicant dies in the course of the application being processed, it shouldn’t kill the application,” he said. “It should endure to the benefit of the survivors and their team that the applicant put together.”

Moton Hopkins Jr., Hopkins’ son, does procurement work for the U.S. Army in San Antonio, Texas. He’s no longer a farmer, but he’s taken over the cause. Hopkins Jr. said he’d move back to Ocala if the family ever does secure a license — but largely, he waits for updates from his lawyers.

His father applied for the license to pass something on to his family, Hopkins Jr. said, not to farm the cannabis himself at his advanced age.

Meanwhile, Hopkins’ 84-year-old widow, Algene, still grieves. Eleven months after her husband died, she lost her daughter, Bernetha. She tears up at her husband’s name and sings his praises. The two of them owned a restaurant in town, Broadway Cafe, until 2020. He started each morning by making his wife breakfast.

When her husband died, Algene moved into her sister’s home in Ocala. She’s been in and out of the hospital recently. She has good days and bad days. Through it all, she keeps telling her husband’s story.

Algene Hopkins smiles as she shows pictures of her deceased husband contained in his funeral flyer. She and her son, Moton Hopkins Jr., are still holding out hope for the medical marijuana license Moton Sr. fought for.
Algene Hopkins smiles as she shows pictures of her deceased husband contained in his funeral flyer. She and her son, Moton Hopkins Jr., are still holding out hope for the medical marijuana license Moton Sr. fought for. [ Shauna Muckle ]

“Things didn’t work out like he had planned, with the license and all that,” she said. “He didn’t give up hope. He was still thinking the Lord would come through.”

Eric Kmetz is a managing partner of Hopkins’ company and an attorney. Kmetz is white. But he said about 20 Black people hold leadership positions, including company president and major investor Herb Washington, a 71-year-old Black former Major League Baseball player for the Oakland Athletics.

“Moton approached us,” Kmetz said. “The fact that some members of the team are white shouldn’t be a reason to not give the (Black farmer applicant) a license.”

A younger generation of Black farmers hangs on

Bowman, the cannabis advocate who sits on the board of Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana, knows what people might say of his business partnership with a 75-year-old Black farmer, Homer Gary. Gary still works in the fields with cattle, Bowman said.

“There’s a narrative that these farmers are nothing but tokens, and that they’ve been fooled,” Bowman said.

Gary is a Marion County farmer who sued for discrimination in the 1990s. In 2022, he received majority ownership in an agriculture business called Innovative Fix LLC, based in Brandon. It was Bowman who brought on Gary and assembled the team that has moved Gary’s application forward.

Gary isn’t involved in the legal back and forth, Bowman said, but he is the farmer at the center of the operation, who challenged the federal government on discrimination and won. He’s the “vision,” Bowman said.

John Allen is a 46-year-old lifelong farmer based in Fort Myers who already works in cannabis. He’s owned a hemp lab and manufacturing facility called Nano Hydrate since 2019. Allen is also the cousin of Earkus Battle, the 81-year-old potato and soybean farmer who died in 2020. Battle was one of the Black farmer litigants.

When Battle’s health began to decline in 2019, he assigned his rights to a medical marijuana license to Allen. Before applying in 2022, Allen made sure there was a record of the assignment.

But the state told multiple applicants in denial letters that they had to apply under the name of the original Black farmer litigant, not a company.

John Allen owns a hemp lab called Nano Hydrate in Cape Coral. He applied for a license to cultivate and sell medical marijuana, teaming up with his now-deceased cousin, Black farmer Earkus Battle.
John Allen owns a hemp lab called Nano Hydrate in Cape Coral. He applied for a license to cultivate and sell medical marijuana, teaming up with his now-deceased cousin, Black farmer Earkus Battle. [ Courtesy of John Allen ]

Allen’s legal team is suing the state based on that provision. His lawyer, Paula Savchenko of PS Law Group, argues that it makes no sense to prevent Battle’s chosen successor from taking on the rights to a license.

“Nobody wants to go in and challenge a state agency,” Allen said. “We know that we’re qualified, we know that we did all of our due diligence.”

Among the 12 applicants, five companies applied for a Black farmer medical marijuana license. Seven applied under the individual name of the Black farmer. The state considers applying as a company, not a person, an error, according to denial letters the health department sent out.

Bowman hopes that the state will let him fix the error now that the applicants, beginning July 1, have 90 days to reapply and “correct deficiencies.”

But Bowman said he’s frustrated that delays keep piling up.

“Any delay from the state is an existential threat when you’re 73, 89 or 100,” he said.