Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is calling on the state’s Department of Health to award a medical cannabis business license to one of the state’s Black farmers and to reduce barriers to enter the state’s industry.
On Tuesday, Fried held a news conference to draw attention to an emergency Department of Health rule released on Oct. 14 that established the application process for a license to go to a Black farmer in the state. Fried called the Department’s approach “discriminatory.”
Fried, who is running to be the next governor of Florida, held the event at the Infinite Zion Farm, a non-profit urban farmer collective, in Orlando. Former Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson and Erik Range, chair of the board of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, joined the press conference.
The rule was born out of the Pigford v. Glickman case, a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The lawsuit involved 400 Southern Black farmers who argued that the allocation of USDA loans was discriminatory because it depended on an applicant’s credit, and Black people faced systemic barriers when trying to build credit. The lawsuit was settled in 1999, and since then, more than $1 billion has been issued in payouts.
How this plays into cannabis policy in Florida is complicated. When the state’s medical cannabis law was drafted, one license was set aside for a member of the Pigford plaintiff’s class.
Further, the state’s medical cannabis law required that those applying for a license to grow and sell cannabis have owned a nursery in the state for 30-years, which Fried said created a hurdle for Florida’s Black farmers who were not part of the Pigford lawsuit.
“One of the biggest discrepancies that we saw when the laws first passed in the state is the fact that minorities were left out of the conversation and were not having a seat at the table,” Fried said.
Former Rep. Thompson talked about how the nursery requirement iced out Black farmers, adding that this prompted her to vote against the medical cannabis rules at the time. So, too, she said, did the fact that licensees had to be vertically integrated, which requires much more capital, as it involves both growing and selling the product.
Thompson said that officials “need to finish the job” to “make sure that the Pigford plaintiffs have an opportunity to participate in this growing industry here in the state of Florida.”
Thompson added, “As we’ve seen with so many industries, minorities are at the back. And we know that for a long time, minorities were participants in the agricultural industry, but they were harvesting the crops, not owning the farms.”
Now, Thompson said, she wants minority farmers owning their own farms.
Fried called for the Department of Health to reduce or waive fees for Pigford applicants. Range agreed, calling the high fees “absolutely discriminatory,” and a “barrier” to enter the state’s medical cannabis industry.
“We know that there is historic, systemic racism when it comes to our lending practices and our banks, and [it’s] hard enough already for these communities to have access to capital,” Fried said. “Now, white men are making millions upon millions of dollars. And so this has got to end.”
Fried emphasized the disproportionate impact that the enforcement of cannabis laws has had on Black and brown communities, and said that she hoped that the state’s medical cannabis program would start to reflect the state’s hemp program, which doesn’t have a limited number of licenses available, allowing for more industry entrants, or a vertical integration requirement, allowing those who want to own a smaller piece of the supply chain to do so.
Range pointed to the 22 licenses that the state has awarded, and noted that none had opened shop in the area where the Infinite Zion Farm is located.
“We are standing in the middle of a medically underserved community. You won’t find a medical cannabis dispensary in this neighborhood. That means that this community is not only left out from the economic benefit, but also from the health care benefit,” Range said. “We know for a fact that those license holders that are owned and operated by minority operators are going to exist in those communities that are under served.”