Politics

Black farmer sues to block Florida from issuing set-aside medical marijuana license

Surterra Therapeutics Cultivation Manager Wes Conner displays the fully grown flower of one of their marijuana plants at their north Florida facility, on the outskirts of Tallahassee, June 28, 2016.
Surterra Therapeutics Cultivation Manager Wes Conner displays the fully grown flower of one of their marijuana plants at their north Florida facility, on the outskirts of Tallahassee, June 28, 2016. AP/Tallahassee Democrat

An African American farmer out of Panama City is suing the state to block the issuance of a medical marijuana license set aside for minorities on the grounds that a new law cut him out of the deal.

Columbus Smith, 80, says he can’t bid on the Florida Department of Health’s cultivation license reserved for members of the Florida chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association because the private association won’t allow new members to join. He says the association stopped accepting new members before the state even passed a new medical cannabis law in June implementing an expanded system.

“There is no rational basis for limiting the opportunity of Black Farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license to only the few members of that class of Black Farmers who are also members of a specific private association,” Smith, represented by attorneys Sam Ard, Wilbur Brewton and Kelly Plante, states in his complaint.

Howard Gunn Jr., president of the farmers association, said he was not aware of the lawsuit and declined to discuss Smith’s assertions.

The state’s medical marijuana licenses grant farmers the valuable ability to cultivate and distribute marijuana to be processed into medicine. A new law passed in June required the state to issue 10 new licenses on top of the seven that, at the time, already existed. Recently, a license-holder out of Alachua sold the management rights to its business for $40 million.

The first licenses were issued in a method that effectively cut out black farmers. To address the problem lawmakers made sure to set aside one of their new licenses for farmers who participated in the Pigford v. Glickman case, a late 1990s class-action lawsuit that was settled between the USDA and black farmers who said they’d been discriminated against by the federal government.

Eligible bidders also had to be members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. But the association, according to Smith, has at most five members, and refuses to make its membership list public. Smith, whose lawsuit was first reported by Vegetable and Specialty Crop News, is asking the courts to overturn the portion of state law that requires a license to go to a member of the association, and in the meantime stop the state from issuing that license.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

Modern Health Concepts owns South Florida's only legal medical marijuana grow operation. The company recently allowed a Miami Herald photographer and reporter to tour the facility.

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