Black farmer challenges Florida's medical marijuana law

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A lawsuit filed Friday challenges the constitutionality of part of a new state law that requires a coveted medical-marijuana license to go to a black farmer.

Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, filed the lawsuit, alleging that the law is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The lawsuit contends that the measure is what is known as an unconstitutional “special law.”

The law, passed during a June special session, was designed to carry out a November constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida. A key part of the law was expanding the number of licenses that would be awarded to operators in what could turn into a highly lucrative industry.

While the law called for an overall increase of 10 licenses by Oct. 3, it also specified that one license go to a black farmer who had been part of settled lawsuits about discrimination by the federal government against black farmers. The law also said that the black farmer who receives a license would have to be a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association-Florida Chapter.

The lawsuit said Smith meets the qualification of being part of the litigation about discrimination against black farmers. But it said he has not been allowed to join the black farmers association, effectively preventing him from receiving a license.

“There is no rational basis for limiting the opportunity of black farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license to only the few members of that class of black farmers who are also member of a specific private association,” said the lawsuit, filed in Leon County circuit court.

The Florida Constitution bars “special” laws, in part, that relate to “grant of privilege to a private corporation.” The lawsuit alleges that the medical-marijuana law violates that part of the Constitution.

The lawsuit names the Florida Department of Health, which is responsible for awarding licenses, as the defendant. It seeks an injunction against issuing a license under the part of the law related to black farmers.

Licenses to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana have been one of the most-controversial issues in the rapidly developing industry.

Representatives of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association-Florida Chapter said Friday they could not comment on the lawsuit until their attorneys had time to review it.

Health officials granted the first medical marijuana licenses in 2015, after the Legislature authorized non-euphoric medical marijuana for patients with severe epilepsy, muscle spasms or cancer. Nurseries that had been in business for 30 years or longer in Florida and grew at least 400,000 plants were eligible to apply.

In expanding the number of licenses this year, the Legislature carved out a license for black farmers who complained that they were shut out from applying for the original licenses because none of the black farmers met the eligibility criteria.

Part of the reason that the black farmers don't have operations as expansive as their white and Hispanic counterparts may be blamed on discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that led to a class-action lawsuit, known as "Pigford I," filed in 1981. A second lawsuit, called "Pigford II," was finally settled by a federal judge in 2011. Many of the claimants have yet to receive their portions of the $1.3 billion settlement, and others have died waiting for the cases to be resolved.

"They have carved out most of the small farmers, not only the black farmers, but the small farmers. We can't compete with those companies. It's just a shame. It's a travesty. Again, going back 30 years ago with the USDA, the same thing you saw in Pigford I and Pigford II. It's the same thing again, right here in the state of Florida. It's not right," Howard Gunn, an Ocala farmer who is the president of the black farmers' association, said in 2015.

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