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State Offers Framework For Pot Licenses

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Daily Chronic
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

More than six months after an Oct. 3 deadline to issue new medical-marijuana licenses, the Florida Department of Health has released a proposed rule outlining an application process for potential operators in what could be one of the nation’s largest cannabis markets.

Lawmakers ordered the new licenses after voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment broadly legalizing marijuana as a treatment for patients with debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and multiple sclerosis.

Under a 2014 law that allowed limited types of medical cannabis, the Department of Health had awarded some licenses before the constitutional amendment passed. But the Legislature last year gave state health officials until Oct. 3 to grant 10 new licenses to marijuana operators who meet certain requirements, including applicants who were involved in litigation prior to January 2017.

The state thus far has issued licenses to 13 operators, including a handful of new operators who met the criteria laid out in the 2017 law. But it has not started accepting applications for four highly sought-after licenses from businesses seeking entree into Florida’s burgeoning market.

The proposed rule released Tuesday mirrors an emergency regulation floated by the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use late last year, but it also incorporates elements included in a law, passed during this year’s legislative session, aimed at addressing legal and regulatory concerns that have plagued state officials since the Legislature first approved non-euphoric cannabis for a limited number of patients four years ago.

For example, the proposed rule lays out requirements for a license earmarked for a black farmer who was part of settled lawsuits, known as “Pigford” cases, about discrimination against black farmers by the federal government. The proposed rule released Tuesday reflects changes included in this year’s law, which did away with a previous requirement that black-farmer applicants be members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists-Florida Chapter. The change in the law, reflected in the proposed rule, was focused on solving a problem raised in a legal challenge over the black-farmer issue.

Another element of the proposed rule deals with a requirement, also ordered by the Legislature, that gives preference for up to two licenses to applicants that “own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana.”

The citrus preference is the focus of one of several ongoing marijuana-related lawsuits, including a challenge to the state’s ban on smokable pot and a separate case in which a circuit judge recently gave Tampa strip-club owner Joe Redner permission to grow his own cannabis for use in juicing to prevent a recurrence of lung cancer. The state has appealed the Redner ruling.

The health agency’s proposed rule also addresses the issue of four additional licenses, slated to be issued within six months after 100,000 patients are qualified by the state as eligible for medical marijuana treatment.

Under the procedure laid out in the proposed regulation, highest scoring applicants who didn’t make the cut to receive one of the first batch of licenses granted in response to the 2016 amendment will be in line to receive licenses once 100,000 qualified patients have been entered into a statewide database.

The database recently reached the 100,000-patient threshold, but not all of those patients have received identification cards from state health officials, a trigger state law requires for the four additional licenses to be issued.

As of Friday, nearly 79,000 patients had been issued ID cards, and about another 3,000 applications were being processed, according to the Office of Medical Marijuana Use.