Has Florida kept Black marijuana farmers from succeeding?

Out of the 22 treatment centers licensed to sell medical marijuana in Florida, just one is minority-owned.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called the director of Florida's medical marijuana program to testify at a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called the director of Florida's medical marijuana program to testify at a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Published Sept. 23, 2021|Updated Sept. 29, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — It’s been a long four years for Florida’s Black farmers.

In 2017, the Legislature passed a law that created the modern Florida medical marijuana industry. It set steep barriers to entry. It limited the number of licenses the state could award to companies. By no later than Oct. 3 of that year, a new marijuana license was to be given to a business owner belonging to a “Pigford Class” — one of two groups of Black farmers who had won a judgment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for that agency’s history of racial discrimination.

One full presidential term later, no such cannabis license has been awarded.

During a hearing with state senators on Thursday, the director of Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, Christopher Ferguson, said developing regulations for the Pigford license is a priority for his office. Ferguson, who works under the Department of Health, said the rules would be ready in “the coming weeks.”

But for the Black farmers in Florida, many questions remain. A potential Black-owned cannabis business would start its operations at least five years behind the first Florida dispensaries. How would that business catch up? Much of the urban retail space available for dispensaries has already been plucked up by Florida’s early operators, some of which now number among the largest cannabis companies in the world.

“There’s definitely some people that are not starting at the starting line, but starting in the parking lot and trying to catch up,” said Erik Range, the board chair for the advocacy group Minorities for Medical Marijuana.

Of the 22 medical marijuana treatment centers licensed to sell cannabis in Florida, just one, Cookies Florida, is minority-owned. That business has yet to begin dispensing cannabis to patients.

Related: Where does Florida medical marijuana giant Trulieve go from here?

The state’s decision to award a Pigford license will almost certainly be challenged by the runners-up, said Jonathan Robbins, an attorney who’s done extensive work in the Florida cannabis industry. It could also prompt challenges from farmers not eligible for the license under state law because they do not belong to a Pigford class, he said.

“They could have said the license will go to a Black farmer. I don’t know why they are limiting it to members of those specific classes. I think that is going to pose a challenge,” Robbins said.

Florida has a history of lengthy legal battles over medical marijuana. The Department of Health delayed crafting regulations around the Pigford license in the first place because of a challenge to the 2017 law. That case, Florida Department of Health v. Florigrown, LLC, was only resolved earlier this year by the Florida Supreme Court. (Robbins worked for the Florigrown side in that case.)

In 2019, while the Florigrown litigation was making its way through the courts, the state awarded licenses to eight other companies to settle a series of separate lawsuits.

While Florida’s Black farmers have had to wait for the Pigford rules, other states have more actively helped Black residents affected by unjust marijuana policies. New Jersey, in an attempt to amend for drug enforcement policies that disproportionately targeted Black residents, has built social justice into its legal cannabis program. One quarter of all licenses will go to residents who live in “impact zones” — larger cities with a disproportionately high number of marijuana possession arrests. The state also expunged criminal marijuana possession and distribution records involving smaller amounts of the drug.

A much less ambitious effort to expunge some cannabis offenses in Florida passed the Senate during the 2021 Legislative session, but House Speaker Chris Sprowls was opposed to the measure. It died in his chamber.

Related: Florida could erase some marijuana convictions if this bill passes. But there’s a catch.

The state’s effort to set aside a license for a Black farmer could pay huge dividends for whoever gets it. Florida cannabis licenses may be the most valuable property in the global legal marijuana market. Earlier this month, a Florida medical marijuana operator sold its license alone for $55 million to a business planning to open in the state.

Florida is especially desirable for companies because of its expansive market, limited competition and — to a lesser extent — the regulations that require licensed firms to control every aspect of the cannabis production process. By law, a Florida medical marijuana operator has to be able to grow, harvest, package and sell its product. That can mean high profit margins for those who can manage to do all that efficiently.

“We feel that any applicant that comes forward as a part of the Pigford (class) is going to be very successful,” Ferguson said.

But the process of buying enough property, expertise and equipment to run all of those operations simultaneously is also quite costly. Range said he worries the farmer who is awarded the Pigford license will struggle to acquire enough capital to make the venture work.

No matter what the future holds for Black farmers, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, figures they have waited long enough. That’s why he called in Ferguson to give Thursday’s presentation at the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I don’t feel I got specificity, what I got was ‘weeks and months,’” Rouson said, referring to Ferguson’s timeline for the release of the Pigford rules. “But hopefully the impression we made is that we’re serious, and that they will err on the side of weeks instead of months.”