Last week, five years after Floridians voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, state officials announced an "emergency rule" that sets aside one medical marijuana license specifically for a Black farmer.
That might seem like a welcome measure to help bring equity to an industry criticized for disproportionately profiting white people, especially considering that Black Americans are more than 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people and that there are no Black medical marijuana operators in Florida.
But Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist and a current Democratic candidate for governor, expressed outrage at the news.
“The state of Florida today announced a new rule that will more than double fees ONLY for Black farmers applying for medical marijuana licenses,” reads the October 14 tweet. “This new rule is discriminatory and disgusting and needs to be revised immediately."
The state of Florida today announced a new rule that will more than double fees ONLY for Black farmers applying for medical marijuana licenses. This new rule is discriminatory and disgusting and needs to be revised immediately.— Commissioner Nikki Fried (@NikkiFriedFL) October 14, 2021
After voters passed Amendment 2 in 2016, the state passed legislation to regulate the medical marijuana industry within its borders. The law stipulates that only 23 licenses could be issued and that one of those would be set aside for a Black person.
Not just any Black person, however.
Only recognized class members of Pigford v. Glickman, a 1997 federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were eligible to apply. The so-called Pigford Class consists of more than 15,000 Black farmers across the nation who were covered in a 1999 consent decree that netted them an average of about $50,000 apiece.
More than $1 billion has been paid out since the suit was adjudicated, ranking among the largest civil-rights settlements in the history of the American judicial system.
For nearly five years, eligible Black farmers in Florida waited for the state to announce the application process for the Pigford Class — only to learn last week that will cost them $146,000 apiece to throw their hat into the ring.
As Fried pointed out on social media, that sum is more than twice the approximately $60,000 the initial round of applicants paid to vie for the 22 original licenses, according to attorney Dustin Robinson, founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based firm Mr. Cannabis Law.
State officials have not yet set a date for the process to get underway.
Florida Rep. Kevin D. Chambliss, a Democrat whose District 117 encompasses Homestead and south Miami-Dade County, says the application launch is a welcome step forward in ensuring a more equitable and representative landscape of the state's farmers. But he cautions that he nor any other member of the legislature's Black Caucus has yet to see any justification for the exorbitant application fee.
"We look forward to seeing more progress being made in the near future," Chambliss says. "We would like to receive justification for the fee increase, but the fact that the application is available is still considered to be progress."
Chambliss also points out that the majority of Black farmers in Florida are ineligible for the license since they aren't covered under Pigford. He estimates that of the roughly 2,000 Black farmers working in Florida, fewer than 100 qualify to apply.
"It's a known fact there are a majority of Black farmers who are ineligible," Chambliss says.
After the single Pigford license is awarded, a third round of applications will open up for an additional 18 licenses, eventually bringing the total number to 41, explains Robinson of Mr. Cannabis Law.
“We are not sure what the application fee will be for the 18 licenses,” Robinson notes. “But if the Department [of Health] keeps the application fee at $60,000, then it certainly doesn’t look equitable that Pigford applicants are paying a much higher fee.”
Pigford applicants must provide extensive documentation showing their ties to the case, their funding model, and operational details that spell out processing and dispensing.
And Fried, who earlier this year declared her candidacy for governor in next year's race, made clear the irony — that Black farmers are again the victims of discrimination.
“Black farmers should have the same access to these licenses as the other 22 license holders that Florida has previously approved,” she says in a news release criticizing the new application process. “I hope the Florida Department of Health will immediately revise this discriminatory rule and ensure equity for all license applicants.”