TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Black farmers, mostly in the South, fought for more than 30 years to reach a $1.3 billion settlement with the federal government over discriminatory lending and assistance practices.
Now, Florida's low-THC medical marijuana law passed last year has reignited old wounds for the state's black farmers, who complain that requirements in the law have virtually barred them from participating in the new industry.
Under the law, only nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 continuous years and cultivate a minimum of 400,000 plants are eligible to apply to be one of five "dispensing organizations" selected to grow, process and dispense the non-euphoric cannabis.
But none of the state's black farmers meet the criteria, Howard Gunn, an Ocala farmer and president of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, told the Senate Health Policy Committee during a discussion Tuesday of a new plan to get the medical-marijuana industry up and running.
"It brings a lot of resentment up from before. We're disappointed again. What do you say? You're here in the state. You try to do what's right. But to carve out a section for certain people. … Just give us a piece. That's all we ask for," Gunn told reporters after the meeting. "It's just being fair. Equal justice. And we feel like it just wasn't done."
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 portion 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," Gunn said.
The black farmers' claim of discrimination is the latest in a litany of complaints about Florida's low-THC pot law --- the first of its kind in the nation.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, who was instrumental in passage of the 2014 law, is pushing a proposal this session that would give state health officials the ability to begin selecting qualified nurseries to start cultivating non-euphoric pot as soon as the bill, if approved, is signed into law.
Bradley's measure would increase the number of dispensing organizations to 20 and expand the types of eligible patients --- now limited to those with severe muscle spasms and cancer --- who can purchase products with a maximum of .08 percent of euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and at least 10 percent cannabadiol, or CBD.
But even some supporters of last year's law now object that the THC levels are so low that the cannabis products, usually delivered in paste or oil form, won't help even those for whom the law was intended.
And on Tuesday, the black farmers injected a new twist into the drawn-out drama.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, a black Democrat from Miami Gardens, proposed an amendment to Bradley's bill (SB 7066) that would have removed the 30-year continuous business requirement and the minimum number of plants.
Thirty years ago, "not many of us were growing or had nurseries," Gunn told the panel.
"We basically would love to get into this business. We see the profitability. We think the black farmers can somehow make a better living," he said.
Excluding the black farmers was an unintended consequence of last year's bill, Braynon said. But he withdrew the amendment after Bradley pledged to work with him as the bill moves through the legislative process.
Bradley said he, too, had problems with the 30-year provision tucked into the measure by the House during the final days of the session. But he said he is focused on making the cannabis available to patients. Parents of children with severe epilepsy pushed for legalization of the low-THC, high-CBD products, believing the cannabis can eliminate or dramatically reduce life-threatening seizures.
"My fear is that by changing the rules too much we interfere with that goal, getting it into the hands of folks as soon as possible," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
Under the law, health officials were supposed to begin selecting by Jan. 1 five nurseries to operate as vertically integrated "dispensing organizations." But a judge tossed the department's first attempt at regulations last year, siding with a handful of nurseries and other businesses that objected, among other things, to the use of a lottery system to select the licensees because a lottery wasn't included in the law.
Health officials earlier this month made a second attempt at the regulations after a rare and lengthy "negotiated rule-making" workshop. But three different entities have filed legal challenges to the revised proposal, creating more delays in getting the law implemented. A judge has set an April 14 hearing in one of the cases, while the other two cases have been consolidated and are scheduled for an April 23 hearing.
Rep. Matt Caldwell sponsored the amendment last year that created the requirements of being in business for three decades and cultivating 400,000 plants. On Tuesday, Caldwell said he was unaware that the criteria would exclude black farmers.
"I've never had anybody approach me about that issue before," Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, told The News Service of Florida. Caldwell said he would be willing to speak with the black farmers or others regarding the requirements.
The provisions were intended to give Florida's oldest nurseries a leg up in what was expected to be fierce competition for the licenses, Caldwell said.
"I thought the ones who've been here the longest should be the first in line," he said.
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