Florida’s medical marijuana industry is barely five years old but already replete with unfairness. A Black farmer has yet to receive a state cannabis license, contrary to clearly defined requirements. Issuing a license quickly so a Black farmer can enter this lucrative market is the first step toward evening the playing field.
In 2016, 71% of Floridians voted for a constitutional amendment legalizing pot for medicinal use. In spite of that resounding margin, state lawmakers and regulators stymied the process at every turn, imposing burdensome barriers for both operators and patients. The law that passed following the vote made it legal to access the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, but illegal to smoke it — reflecting an outdated stigma. Lawmakers arbitrarily capped the number of licenses the state would issue to growers and required them to also process and distribute the drug, making it that much harder for small operators to break into the market.
The result was, unsurprisingly, lawsuits. Lots of them. Five years later, many of those cases have been resolved and Florida’s marijuana industry is a billion-dollar enterprise. Hundreds of thousands of patients with chronic pain or illnesses like multiple sclerosis and epilepsy can now access this safe and effective treatment — and perhaps avoid the dangers of opioids. It can also ease the pain of cancer treatment. That’s the good news.
What remains unresolved: regulations for issuing a license to a Black farmer, as required by the state’s own rules. As Times staff writer Kirby Wilson recently reported, Florida has neglected the matter due to legal complications. There are now 22 treatment centers licensed to dispense marijuana across the state but not one is Black-owned. Only one is minority-owned. The unfairness is appalling. The optics are awful.
Of course, the issue cuts deeper than business licenses and lawsuits. For decades, marijuana laws in Florida and throughout the country disproportionately harmed African-Americans. Simple possession was used as the basis for countless arrests, creating criminal records that prevented people from obtaining jobs and housing. Marijuana laws also enabled prosecutors to push for longer and harsher prison sentences in the criminal justice system, leaving far too many Black people imprisoned for using and selling a drug that is now recommended by primary care doctors and dispensed like gummy bears. Hindsight painfully shows how unjust those laws were.
One meaningful way to begin to correct that injustice would be to enable African-American entrepreneurs to reap the profits of our newfound enlightenment. To empower them to build generational wealth after so much time and talent was stolen. But because of Florida regulators’ foot-dragging, a Black marijuana operator will now enter a well-established industry, where market share has been claimed, retail space occupied and competition given a head start.
Florida has a lot of catching up to do to ensure its thriving medical marijuana industry is accessible, especially to those hurt by racist prohibitions of the past. In a Senate committee hearing in September, the director of Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use promised that long-overdue regulations would be issued in “the coming weeks.” Considering that’s five years past the Oct. 3, 2017 deadline prescribed in Florida law, Black farmers have waited long enough.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.