TALLAHASSEE - The owner of a Suwannee County farm is in line to be the state's newest medical marijuana operator, beating out 11 other applicants competing for a license earmarked for a Black farmer with ties to Florida.
The state Department of Health on Tuesday announced it had issued a "written notice of intent" to approve a medical-marijuana license for Terry Donnell Gwinn, setting the stage for what could be protracted litigation over the sought-after opportunity to join the medical-pot industry.
"Mr. Gwinn is very pleased that his application was selected for licensure and is grateful for the hard work by the Florida Department of Health, Office of Medical Marijuana Use, to complete the review of the applications received. He looks forward to working with the office to complete the final steps to licensure," Gwinn's attorney, Jim McKee, said in a statement provided to The News Service of Florida.
Gwinn, 69, and his brother Clifford have farmed for more than 40 years and operate Gwinn Brothers Farm in McAlpin, the statement said.
Gwinn has cultivated watermelons, soybeans, peanuts, corn, and peas on the 1,137-acre farm and has "deep roots in the community," it said.
Gwinn's application listed McAlpin-based "Gwinn Brothers Medicinals" as the fictitious name of the operation.
In addition to awarding a license to a Black farmer, this week's decision could help pave the way for health officials to double the number of medical marijuana operators in the state --- currently at 22, not including Gwinn --- as required by a 2017 law that set guidelines for the industry.
Florida voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The resulting 2017 law included a provision requiring health officials to issue a license to a Black farmer because none of the African-American farmers in Florida could meet eligibility requirements for an earlier round of state licenses.
That earlier round of licenses was based on a 2014 law that legalized non-euphoric cannabis for a limited number of patients.
The 2017 law required granting a license to "one applicant that is a recognized class member" in class-action lawsuits known as the "Pigford" cases.
Those cases were filed by Black farmers alleging discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To be eligible for the medical marijuana license, Black farmers had to show that they had done business in Florida for at least five years.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration began accepting applications for the license in March.
Black farmers who wanted to apply were hit by sticker shock when the Department of Health's application process included a non-refundable fee of $146,000 --- more than double what prospective operators paid the last time an application process was open.
To assuage concerns about the cost, the Legislature passed a law saying that entities who were deemed eligible for the Black farmer license wouldn't have to pay to apply for future licenses.
The 2017 law laid out a schedule for new licenses to come online as the number of patients who have qualified for the cannabis treatment grows.
With more than 750,000 patients, the law calls for at least 22 more licenses, including the one announced this week.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration put the Black farmer license at the front of the line in awarding additional licenses after the Florida Supreme Court last year ruled in a key case challenging part of the 2017 law.
The department's decision to award the earmarked license for Gwinn is almost certain to spur litigation from medical marijuana hopefuls who lost out.
All but five of the 22 medical-marijuana businesses currently operating in the state were issued licenses after drawn-out legal and administrative challenges.
Existing licenses have sold for more than $50 million.
"Everybody who lost is going to challenge," Daniel Russell, a Tallahassee lawyer with the Dean Mead firm who represents one of the applicants, told the News Service. "We all saw how this went last time. There were supposed to be five licensees and now there are more than 20, and it happened via litigation strategies and lobbying strategies. So that's what we're going to do again."
Russell said his client, Willard Meeks, was among the handful of applicants whose submissions received a score from the health department.
"We think we put together a great application, have a good team, and look forward to a positive result in the future," Russell said.
It's likely that many of the dozen applicants were deemed ineligible for the Black farmer license.
A news release announcing the intent to award the license to Gwinn did not identify how many applications were scored but said the Department of Health "used a competitive selection process to identify the applicant that best meets the legal requirements for licensure."
Correspondence between the state and applicants, posted in March on the Department of Health's website along with the applications, provided a glimpse into what appeared to be widespread confusion over eligibility for the license.
For example, applicant Fred Fisher's application said his family's roots in Jonesville, a Black agricultural community in Alachua County, date to the days of slavery. He provided a family tree and photographs of headstones.
But Fisher does not appear to have participated in the Pigford lawsuits, as required by the law.
In his application, he described how he was a victim of discrimination by U.S. Department of Agriculture agents when his family sought financial assistance after a drought in the early 1980s.
Fisher said he and his brother were not allowed to speak with an agent and were told that "as a Black farmer there was no way we were going to get assistance."
His written complaints "were never formally accepted," his affidavit said.
The selection of Gwinn also comes amid a push to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Florida.
Trulieve, the state's largest medical-marijuana company, has contributed $10 million to help launch the initiative.
The "Adult Personal Use of Marijuana" proposal would allow people 21 or older "to possess, purchase, or use marijuana products and marijuana accessories for non-medical personal consumption by smoking, ingestion, or otherwise."
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