Florida Finally Grants Commercial Pot License to a Black Farmer

Photo by Daniel Oberhaus
After years of incessant delays, Florida has completed the application process for Black farmers vying for a specially designated commercial cannabis license that will open the door to the state's billion-dollar medical marijuana industry. 

On September 20, the Florida Department of Health announced that it intends to give Donell Gwinn the license, which has been set aside for a Black farmer applicant since 2017. 

For more than two decades, Gwinn has operated Gwinn Brothers Farm alongside his brothers Robert and Clifford near the community of McAlpin in Suwannee County. The siblings raised cattle and grew  peanuts, iron clay peas, watermelon, and hay on their 1,100-acre property.

Gwinn stands to become the 23rd commercial cannabis license holder in Florida. Many of the 22 current license holders are multi-state marijuana companies, publicly traded and valued at billions of dollars.

The North Florida farmer beat out 11 other applicants for the Black farmer license.

“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,” said Gwinn’s attorney, Jim McKee, in a statement to the News Service of Florida.

The special license was set up in 2017 when the Florida legislature wrote regulations for the state's fledgling cannabis industry after voters legalized medical marijuana. The regulations mandated that the license be granted to a Black farmer who was a member of the class of plaintiffs tied to the 1997 litigation known as Pigford v. Glickman. In the landmark case, thousands of Black farmers successfully sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the grounds it had discriminated against them in the allocation of loans.

Last year, the application fee for the Pigford license was raised to $146,000, far more than the $60,000 fee paid in the past to apply for a standard commercial cannabis license. The move prompted outcry from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who criticized the years-long delay in issuing the Pigford license and called the state's medical marijuana licensing process "unacceptable and discriminatory on its face."

On top of expensive application fees, Florida cannabis companies are responsible for all stages of business from cultivation to distribution, as the state has a strict, vertically-integrated model for the industry. All of these requirements have made it nearly impossible for small businesses without large financial backing to enter the medicinal marijuana market.

The Florida Department of Health has justified the delay in issuing commercial cannabis licenses, including the Pigford license, by pointing to lengthy litigation that challenged its licensing system.

The legal quagmire appeared to have been resolved, at least in part, when the Florida Supreme Court upheld the licensing system in a May 2021 ruling.

Still, the health department has remained far behind on its quota, which requires it to issue four standard licenses for every 100,000 new medical marijuana patients in the state.

The licenses are considered "golden tickets" to the Sunshine State medical marijuana market and are constantly changing hands to the tune of millions of dollars. Recently, nationwide cannabis operator MedMen sold its license, cultivation-and-processing facilities, and 14 dispensaries to Fort Lauderdale-based Green Sentry Holdings for $63 million.

As of September 16, there were more than 751,000 medical marijuana patients registered in Florida. Annual cannabis sales in the state could reach $1.5 billion this year, according to estimates from MJBiz Factbook.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein