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Falling Behind: Are Black Cannabis Farmers In Florida Not Getting the Help They’ve Been Promised?

Here is a fact: the medical marijuana industry in Florida is skyrocketing! Florida’s medical cannabis market is already the 3rd most profitable in the country and it’s only going to expand more as the years pass. Amazing, right? Medical marijuana patients will be receiving better, more potent cannabis now that companies from California are moving to the Sunshine State, and the beloved system will obtain billions in revenue because of it. Who could possibly be hurt by this result? As it turns out, there are victims in the midst of all this celebration, and the victims are black farmers.

How are they victims? It’s a really long explanation, so here's the crash course of it. Black farmers in the US have been experiencing systematic discrimination within the last 30 years in terms of being denied loans, debt relief, services by the government, and given loans with unfair terms, all perpetrated by the USDA. Originally, class action lawsuits in the late 90s were filed against the USDA by black farmers where they showed proof of discrimination against them compared to their white counterparts. The case was a success and as a result, $1 billion was used to settle the claims of over 15,000 black farmers. These legal demonstrations by black farmers in 1999 would be known as the Pigford Cases and it's regarded as the biggest class-action lawsuit in the United States. Why is this important?

What should have been an end to discrimination, disproportionate funding, and unfair responses to government stipulations against black farmers continue today. This time it is for the new, booming industry that is medical marijuana. In 2017, a year after high-grade medical marijuana was made legal to sell in Florida, health officials were required to award a marijuana license to a “recognized class member,” a direct legislative effect by the Pigford Cases decades ago. Essentially, a cannabis license should have been awarded to an established black farmer in 2017, but it never was. Since the license STILL hasn’t been awarded, there are now 22 licensed cannabis operators with over 200 stores made to serve over half a million patients, and less than 1% of dispensaries are black-owned. The excuse for the delay in licensing really comes down to “technicalities” by the Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU). In 2017, a lawsuit was filed by Florigrown, a Tampa-based cannabis company that was rejected a license, attacking a part of Florida‘s medical cannabis legislation that only allows their MMTC’s (dispensaries like Trulieve, Curaleaf, Fluent, etc.) to cultivate, manufacture, and sell medical cannabis. This aspect, known as vertical integration, affects the application process for black farmers in Florida, prompting questions and demands since licensing should have already been awarded 4 years ago, but is being stalled because of this lawsuit.

Becoming an MMTC is extremely hard and now even HARDER since companies like Trulieve have a FIRM grasp of the market. 2/3 of the medical cannabis market in Florida is controlled by three operators. Since Florigrown’s litigation against vertical integration is still processing, the license that should have already been awarded to a black farmer during legalization’s early years will have to wait until a decision by Florida’s Supreme Court is made. OMMU director Chris Ferguson recently told black farmers that cannabis licensing for them is a priority in his administration in the coming months, but farmers are clearly skeptical, as they should be. Now, black farmers and small businesses awaiting a license must watch from the sidelines as the already-established firms are raking in millions upon millions in revenue.

The more time goes by, the more patients there will be. The more patients, the more money. Since 2/3 of Florida’s market is already owned by 3 operators, there are discussions being had about possible monopolization in the medical cannabis industry, and why not? If legislations are barring small businesses from participating in a billion dollar industry, while already established dispensaries continue to gain money and control, why wouldn’t there be talks of monopolies and injustice? For example, Trulieve is the largest dispensary in Florida but is being targeted by critics for their CEO’s husband’s ongoing corruption charges, charges that possibly explain how and why Trulieve is now a giant in the industry. Unless a decision is made immediately regarding applications for black farmers, expect more talks of monopolies and unfair treatment of black farmers in Florida.


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