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Judge Sides With Health Officials In Marijuana Challenge

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

A Northeast Florida nursery failed to convince a judge that health officials should have granted the grower one of five coveted  licenses to grow, process and sell medical marijuana.
Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben's recommended order Friday was the first decision in a series of challenges to the licenses, awarded by the Department of Health's Office of Compassionate Use in November.

In a 30-page order, McKibben found that Loop's Nursery and Greenhouses failed to prove that the Jacksonville-based grower's application was superior to those of its competitors in the Northeast region of the state.

McKibben's order comes after a contentious, 10-day hearing in July that featured disagreements ranging from the length of proposed recommended orders to a prolonged dispute over whether a piece of yellow legal-pad paper with the names of investors in a business tied to Loop's should be revealed to the public.

Part of Loop's case hinged on the nursery's exclusive relationship with CWB Holdings, a Colorado-based company headed by Joel Stanley that owns the rights to "Charlotte's Web," a substance whose name has become synonymous with the low-THC, high-CBD treatments believed to eliminate or drastically reduce life-threatening seizures in children with severe epilepsy.

Florida lawmakers authorized the low-THC treatment for patients with chronic muscle spasms, epilepsy or cancer two years ago.

The 2014 law ordered the Department of Health to award one dispensing-organization license in each of five regions of the state. The department awarded a license in the Northeast region to Chestnut Hill Tree Farm and later granted a second license to San Felasco Nurseries after an administrative law judge ruled that San Felasco's application had been wrongly rejected.

The Legislature expanded the law this year to allow the dispensing organizations to also grow full-strength marijuana for patients who are terminally ill.

Loop's lawyers repeatedly pointed out that Office of Compassionate Use Director Christian Bax — one of three panelists who scored the applications — gave the nursery the highest marks over four other competitors in the Northeast region. Bax spent more than 10 hours testifying in the case.

But in Friday's order, McKibben said that Bax's preference didn't prove the nursery should have been granted a license, noting that Loop's failed to address the conclusions reached by the other two scorers.

McKibben acknowledged that Charlotte's Web "has proven to be effective" as a treatment for many medical conditions, including intractable epilepsy.

But other forms of low-THC cannabis could prove just as beneficial, the judge ruled.