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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The state selects growers in north-central Florida for a pot license

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LIVE OAK, Florida (Florida News Service) — Suwannee County farm owner is poised to be the state’s newest medical marijuana operator, beating 11 other applicants vying for a license assigned to a black farmer with ties to Florida.

The state health department announced Tuesday that it has issued a “Written Notice of Intent” to approve a medical marijuana license for Terry Donnell Gwynne, paving the way for what could be protracted litigation over the required opportunity to join the medical-pot industry.

“Mr. Gwinn is very pleased that his application has been selected for licensing and is grateful for the hard work by the Florida Department of Health, Office of Medical Marijuana Use, to complete the review of incoming applications. Gwinn’s attorney, Jim McKee, said in a statement provided to the Florida News Service that Looking forward to working with the office to complete the final steps for licensing.

Gwen, 69, and his brother Clifford have been farming for more than 40 years and running the Gwen Brothers Farm in McAlpine, the statement said.

Gwen grew watermelons, soybeans, peanuts, corn and peas on the 1,137-acre farm that has “deep roots in the community”.

The McAlpin-based Gwinn Brothers Medicinals app listed “Gwinn Brothers Medicinals” as a fictitious name for the operation.

In addition to licensing a black farmer, this week’s decision could help pave the way for health officials to double the number of medical marijuana operators in the state — currently at 22, not including Gwinn — as required by a 2017 law that set guidelines for the industry.

Florida voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that led to widespread legalization of medical marijuana. The resulting 2017 law included a provision requiring health officials to issue a license to a black farmer because none of Florida’s African American farmers could meet the eligibility requirements for an earlier round of state licenses.

That previous round of licensing was based on a 2014 law that authorized non-flavorful cannabis for a limited number of patients.

The 2017 law requires the granting of a license to “one applicant who is a recognized member of a class” in class actions known as “Pigford” cases. These cases were brought by black farmers alleging discrimination by the USDA.

To be eligible for a medical marijuana license, black farmers had to prove they had done business in Florida for at least five years. Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration began accepting licensing applications in March.

Black farmers who wanted to apply were shocked by the posters when the Health Department’s application process included a non-refundable fee of $146,000 — more than double what potential operators paid the last time an application was opened.

To allay concerns about cost, the legislature passed a law that said entities deemed eligible for a black farm license would not have to pay to apply for future licenses.

The 2017 law set a timetable for new internet licenses as the number of patients eligible for cannabis treatment increased. With more than 750,000 patients, the law calls for at least 22 additional licenses, including the one announced this week.

The administration of Governor Ron DeSantis has put the black farm license at the front of the line in granting additional licenses after the Florida Supreme Court ruled last year in a major case challenging part of the 2017 law.

The department’s decision to grant Gwinn’s custom license almost certainly spurs litigation from medical marijuana aspirants who have lost out. All but five of the 22 medical marijuana companies have licenses issued after protracted legal and administrative challenges.

Existing licenses have sold for more than $50 million.

“Everyone who lost will be challenged,” Danielle Russell, a Tallahassee attorney at Dean Mead who is representing one of the applicants, told the News Service. “We all saw how this happened last time. There were supposed to be five licensees and now there are more than 20, and it happened through litigation strategies and lobbying strategies. So that’s what we’re going to do again.”

Russell said his client, Willard Mix, was among a handful of applicants whose applications received a DOH degree.

“We think we made a great request, have a good squad and are looking forward to a positive outcome in the future,” said Russell.

It is likely that many of the twelve applicants were deemed ineligible for the black farmer’s license.

A press release announcing the intent to grant the license to Gwinn did not specify how many applications were registered but said that the Department of Health “used a competitive selection process to determine which applicant best meets the legal requirements for licensing.”

Correspondence between the state and applicants, posted in March on the health ministry’s website along with the applications, provided a glimpse into what appeared to be widespread confusion over eligibility for the license.

For example, applicant Fred Fisher said that his family’s roots in Jonesville, a black farming community in Alachua County, go back to the days of slavery. Provide a family tree and pictures of the tombstones.

But Fisher does not appear to have been involved in the Pigford lawsuits, as required by law. In his application, he described how he was a victim of discrimination by USDA agents when his family requested financial assistance after a drought in the early 1980s.

Fisher said he and his brother were not allowed to speak with an agent and were told, “As a black farmer, there was no way to get help.”

“It was never formally accepted,” said his affidavit.

Gwinn’s selection also comes amid a campaign to put a proposed constitutional amendment into the 2024 ballot that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Florida.

Trulieve, the state’s largest medical marijuana company, contributed $10 million to help launch the initiative.

The “personal adult use of marijuana” proposal would allow people 21 years of age or older to “own, purchase, or use marijuana products and marijuana supplements for personal, non-medical consumption by smoking, ingestion, or otherwise.”

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