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Wait ends for two Black farmers, who receive licenses to grow medical marijuana

The state issued licenses to Suwannee County's Terry Donnell Gwinn and Bascom-based Shedrick McGriff. They come nearly a decade after lawmakers laid out a blueprint for the industry and years of legal delays.

Two Black farmers have received licenses to grow, process and sell medical marijuana, after a new state law helped clear the way for the long-awaited licenses.

The Florida Department of Health issued the licenses July 11 to Suwannee County farmer Terry Donnell Gwinn and Bascom-based Shedrick McGriff. The farmers each met a Friday deadline to submit a required $5 million bond to begin operating, sources confirmed.

Letters sent to Gwinn and McGriff announcing the licenses had been awarded pointed to a measure (HB 387) that lawmakers passed in May and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last month.

The bill was aimed, in part, at helping carry out a 2017 law that earmarked a medical marijuana license for a Black farmer with ties to doing business in the state. The farmer also had to be part of decades-old class-action lawsuits, known as the “Pigford” cases, against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over discriminatory lending practices.

State health officials accepted applications for the Black farmer license in March 2022, after years of delay. The Department of Health in September announced its intent to issue a license to Gwinn, but losing applicants filed administrative and legal challenges.

Under the law that DeSantis signed last month, the health department was required to issue licenses to Black farmers whose applications did not have any identified deficiencies. Of last year’s 12 applicants, only Gwinn and McGriff met that provision.

The law also requires the health department to award licenses to applicants whose applications were deemed to have met “all requirements for licensure” by an administrative law judge. And the new law gives hopefuls whose applications were found deficient a 90-day “cure” period to address the problems.

It isn’t clear how many additional licenses the law will generate because not all of the applicants might have met the criteria.

Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that broadly allowed medical marijuana. Gwinn and McGriff are entering the market as a political committee known as Smart & Safe Florida tries to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot that would authorize recreational use of marijuana by people age 21 or older.

The committee is seeking approval from the Florida Supreme Court of the proposed ballot wording. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has urged the court to reject the measure, arguing that it is “misleading” to voters.

As the third largest state in the country, investors and marijuana operators consider Florida a prime target for recreational use.

State economists recently predicted authorizing recreational use could generate $195.6 million to $431.3 million a year in state and local sales taxes.

With the addition of Gwinn and McGriff, the state now has 24 licensed medical marijuana operators. The men will have to seek authorization to begin cultivating marijuana plants within two months.

“Mr. Gwinn is grateful that the long awaited Pigford MMTC (medical marijuana treatment center) license has been awarded, and he and his team look forward to moving forward quickly to begin cultivation, processing and dispensing operations,” Jim McKee, a lawyer for Gwinn, said Friday. “Upon receipt of cultivation authorization, cultivation will commence in his Alachua County cultivation facility.”

McGriff said thanked DeSantis and state leaders for the license.

"As a Black farmer, I've lived our history with agriculture and felt the weight of the imbalances we've shouldered," he told the News Service. "We're rolling up our sleeves, preparing meticulously to offer medical cannabis to those patients who need it.”

The state issued a first round of medical-marijuana licenses after lawmakers laid out a blueprint for the industry when authorizing low-THC cannabis in 2014.

Black farmers complained none of them met the license-eligibility criteria, which required applicants to have operated as Florida nurseries for 30 years. The farmers maintained that lending discrimination, in part, had prevented them from being able to sustain operations over three decades without interruption.

A 2017 law carrying out the 2016 constitutional amendment required health officials to grant a license to “one applicant that is a recognized class member” in the Pigford cases.

The law also required the Black farmer applicants to have conducted business in Florida for at least five years and have valid certificates of registration as nurseries from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Applicants also had to provide documentation showing they were recognized members in the Pigford class-action lawsuits.

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