With the state's pot industry poised to explode, Florida health officials have agreed to issue another medical marijuana license — the state's seventh — to a Central Florida nursery that lost out to a competitor by a fraction of a percentage point last fall.
The Department of Health inked the agreement with McCrory's Sunny Hill Nursery last week — after nearly a year of protracted and expensive litigation over the license — before Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth McArthur could issue a ruling and as health officials tried to work out a deal over another license in a separate challenge.
"We’ve got about 35,000 square feet under lights right now ready to grow,” said McCrory's CEO Don Clifford. “Obviously we don’t have plants or anything because we haven’t gotten cultivation authorization. But as soon as we have that, we’ll put plants in place and begin growing.” Clifford said he expect to have medical marijuana available for patients by fourth quarter of next year under the brand name GrowHealthy.
In the Dec. 12 settlement, posted Monday on the Division of Administrative Hearings website, state health officials acknowledged that the Lake Wales-based McCrory's should have received a Central Florida license awarded in November to Knox Nursery.
Of the seven applicants in the Central region, a three-member panel charged with evaluating the applications gave McCrory's an aggregate score of 5.5417, just a fraction below Knox, whose score of 5.5458 earned the Lake Mary-based grower a license.
McCrory's contended that one of the reviewers, who identified the nursery as "superior to all other applicants" in one component, erroneously gave the nursery a score of "6" instead of a "7." If the rank had been assigned correctly, McCrory's "would correctly receive the high score and been the highest scoring applicant in the Central region," the nursery's lawyers wrote in May.
The administrative challenges are rooted in a 2014 law that initially called for one license to be awarded in each region of the state for nurseries to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana. That law allowed limited types of non-euphoric cannabis for some patients and was expanded early this year to allow full-strength pot for people who are terminally ill.
Under the agreement filed Monday, health officials signed off on a license for McCrory's, and the grower promised to drop administrative and court challenges. Both sides agreed to pick up the tab for their own legal fees and costs.
Four of the state's six medical marijuana license-holders are now producing pot treatments.
Under the law passed early this year, nurseries awarded licenses last fall can keep their licenses. The law requires health officials to grant additional licenses to applicants who successfully file challenges against the state.
Since the 2014 law was passed, the state has spent nearly $1.2 million on legal fees and costs as it has faced challenges to rules regulating the industry and to the selection of licensees. The bulk of the money has gone to the Tallahassee-based firm Vezina, Lawrence and Piscitelli.
Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya contributed to this report.