“A seat at the table”: Black farmers fight to cash in on Florida’s $1B medical marijuana industry

ORLANDO, Fla. — Medical marijuana is a $1 billion industry in Florida -- the third highest in the nation.

This spring, the state is expected to start allowing more farmers to compete for medical marijuana licenses for the first time since the application process first opened in 2015.

That was one year after state lawmakers legalized medical marijuana for patients with some medical conditions.


At the time, the state had been on a long journey to legalize medical marijuana.

Voters approved a 2016 constitutional amendment, but it required the state legislature to develop rules on how the industry could operate.

Those rules are what some Black farmers believe helped box them out of the lucrative industry.

9 Investigates’ Daralene Jones sought out to share their story and to also dig deeper into the historical roots of discrimination against Black farmers, outlined in a lawsuit filed against the federal government and initially settled in 1999.

Read: Florida Supreme Court upholds state medical marijuana rules

After additional language was added to a 2008 Farm Bill in Congress, the feds settled for an additional $1.2 billion for claims alleging that the United States Department of Agriculture continued practices of racial discrimination practices, shutting farmers out of the agriculture industry.

Black farmers in Florida believe the state has intentionally blocked them from a modern agriculture industry focused on growing, cultivating and distributing medical marijuana.

Ray Warthen comes from a lineage that was part of the industry, which is why he wasn’t afraid to re-cultivate this soil in the middle of Parramore to build an urban vegetable farm.

“They said it was impossible to start an urban farm in Paramore. They thought we were going to get robbed. Something’s going to happen. And the opposite happened,” Warthen said.

Read: Black farmers face uphill battle in bid to grow medical marijuana

The crops are thriving and the cash is coming in, creating space to buy land in Groveland in hopes of expanding into medical marijuana, but there are barriers.

“For me, it’s discouraging. So pretty much saying stay in your lane, stay in your place,” Warthen said. “This industry is already controlled by a certain group of people. Well, now I’m knocking on that door, saying, ‘hey, we want a seat at the table, too.’”

There are now 22 medical marijuana operators controlling about 400 retail stories in Florida, and none of them are Black owned, despite a law requiring that one license be issued to a Black farmer who was party to a $1 billion lawsuit against the federal government known as the Pigford case.

The Office of Medical Marijuana Use was asked about the hold up during a state hearing in September.

“Now we have a very comprehensive application, and we feel that any applicant that comes forward as part of the Pigford is going to be very successful in Florida,” said Chris Ferguson, who works in the state’s OMMU.

The state agency is now charged with writing and implementing the Florida Department of Health’s rules for medical marijuana.

It also oversees the statewide medical marijuana use registry, which has more than 681,000 qualified patients with an active identification card to carry medical marijuana.

Some 2,760 physicians are qualified to dispense prescriptions for the medical marijuana currently being grown, cultivated and dispensed from 405 dispensing locations.

Read: US Coast Guard offloads more than $1 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana in Florida

Orlando attorney Greg Francis led the legal team for those Black farmers, winning the 2010 settlement in the Pigford case.

“The case was about years of discrimination against Black farmers, who were denied the opportunity to participate in many of the programs that the Department of Agriculture was providing for farmers,” Francis said. “Programs that really were created to benefit America as a whole really ended up being used against Black farmers and forcing them off of their land and into different industries.”

He said the delay in allowing Black farmers into the industry mirrors discrimination of the past.

The state recently increased the application fee from $60,000 to $146,000 based on what the law allows.

Read: Drug dealer with 42 pounds of marijuana arrested at Palm Coast home, deputies say

“You have to be vertically integrated,” Francis said. “You can’t just be a farmer and say, ‘Well, I’m going to sell my crops.’ You have to grow it, you have to transport it and you have to sell it. It is a tremendous amount of money and really has put Black farmers at a disadvantage.”

Back at the urban farm in Parramore, Warthen is actively lobbying lawmakers to revise that model and designate a license to a Black farmer who wasn’t a party to the Pigford case.

There are about 2,200 Black farmers in Florida, and it’s estimated about 100 were involved in the case.

“I’m not getting into the industry to get high or to be the next cool person or to smoke this joint. I’m getting into it ‘cause in these urban and Black neighborhoods, these resources are not available,” Warthen said. “They (are) available for the ‘haves,’ but not the ‘have-nots.’ So I wanna bridge that gap between both and create an avenue between here Groveland and Paramore.”

The application process is expected to open in early March.

Part of the reason Black farmers couldn’t apply when the industry first opened in 2015 is because the state required applicants to be in business for at least 30 years. It has now reduced that to five years.

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Jason Kelly

Jason Kelly, WFTV.com

Jason Kelly joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2014. He serves as the station's Digital Executive Producer.