Inside South Florida’s only legal medical marijuana grow operation
When Nikki Fried was elected commissioner of agriculture, proponents of marijuana cheered because she was their advocate. But what does her newly elected office mean for the future of the cannabis industry in Florida?
The agriculture commissioner historically doesn’t really have much influence. The responsibilities of the commissioner, Fried, and those who work in the department include the regulation of pesticides, edible medical marijuana and, more notably, hemp production.
The Department of Agriculture regulates pesticide use for growers. The Department of Health, which is charged with writing rules for edible forms of medical marijuana, hasn’t done that yet so Agriculture’s role is equally undefined. There is a requirement for a food safety inspection from the Department of Agriculture for each medical marijuana treatment center that produces edibles. Regulating hemp farming, however, falls more directly under the department’s purview than medical marijuana.
Industrial hemp in Florida
Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow. States like Kentucky have embraced hemp as a way to replace failing tobacco farms and falling crop prices.
Congress approved an $867 billion farm bill last week, which, among other things, classifies hemp as an agricultural commodity and takes it off the federal controlled substances list.
Fried, a marijuana lobbyist and South Florida attorney who made a name for herself on a weed-heavy campaign platform, said she was “elated” when she heard the bill passed.
“This is such an amazing opportunity for the state of Florida, for our agriculture community,” she said, “We’ll have significant economic growth.”
Jeffrey Sharkey of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida helped write the legislation that authorized the Department of Agriculture to issue hemp field study permits through Florida A&M and the University of Florida.
The fibrous plant can be used to produce everything from livestock feed to cosmetics to cannabinoid oil, which has some untested medicinal qualities, Sharkey said.
“It’s a really fabulous opportunity for small farmers,” he said.
UF’s two-year program is housed on three sites across the state, where researchers are studying the risk of hemp plants becoming invasive threats as well as identifying hemp varieties suitable for Florida’s various environments. The first sponsor of the pilot was Green Roads, a CBD oil manufacturer.
Right now, researchers are preparing the land and necessary approvals for planting at the research locations in the spring. They are still hiring research personnel, ordering seed, applying for planting permits and working to get additional sponsorship.
Jerry Fankhauser, the assistant director of UF’s experimentation station, says the program aims at proving whether hemp can adapt to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state.
“Growers are looking for additional crops to bring into their rotation,” he said, using citrus greening as an example. “We know the crop can grow and thrive.”
Zack Brym, a UF professor who works at the university’s Homestead research center, says he gets calls from farmers across the fruit, vegetable, livestock and nursery industries looking for a way to diversify their operations.
“With that diversity comes a lot of learning that has to be done to make the right choices agronomically, economically and environmentally,” he said. “It sure is exciting.”
Brym added that because there’s already a market for selling hemp-based products in Florida, he hopes that once plant materials can come off Florida farms, a new sector of the industry can develop.
Since the new farm bill will allow hemp production beyond the university setting, Fried’s campaign promise to expand industrial hemp can hold true. When it comes to expanding the licensing structure and access, however, that will fall to the Legislature.
The governor’s sway
Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’ approach to medical marijuana may shape the state’s burgeoning industry in ways Gov. Rick Scott was not so keen on.
In 2016, 71 percent of Floridians voted on a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. The 2017 bill signed into law by Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form. It also set in motion a plan to license 10 new growers, which has since been upped to 14.
A Tallahassee judge recently ruled that the law passed to implement the amendment was unconstitutional because it both required marijuana operators to grow, process and distribute related products while also capping the number of marijuana licenses. About 20 lawsuits still swirl around the issue, including many petitions for licenses from parties that were denied one, and a challenge to the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana.
More than 162,000 patients across the state are qualified to receive medical marijuana to treat illnesses like Alzheimer’s, PTSD and epilepsy. There are roughly 1,900 doctors who can prescribe medical marijuana, and 81 locations that can dispense it. Those 81 dispensaries are controlled by 14 medical marijuana treatment centers, which cultivate, process and distribute the drug.
Arcview Market Research, an analytics arm of a legal marijuana investment firm, projects Florida’s market alone should hit $1.3 billion by 2021.
DeSantis, who takes office Jan. 8, is apparently unwilling to continue some of the state’s legal appeals, which could bring change to the medical marijuana industry. Lt. Gov.-elect Jeanette Núñez told the News Service of Florida that DeSantis “has said he’s not interested in continuing that fight.”
“The governor-elect is reviewing a number of options on this issue and will be addressing the matter further as we move forward with our transition and the new administration,” Dave Vasquez, spokesman for the transition team, said Tuesday.
Expanding the space
What his comment means for the state is hazy, but lawmakers and marijuana activists alike hope the new administration will be more open to expanding the industry.
Sharkey said the gridlock in the DOH licensing structure is caused by the litigation against the state’s implementation of the amendment. The low number of licenses and, therefore, a low level of competition drive prices up for patients who need the treatment, he said.
“For a state of 20 million people, 14 licenses after two years is remarkable,” Sharkey said. “We have to eliminate this litigation gridlock. We have to make sure that there’s an adequate number of licenses.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, who wants to lift all caps on licenses, plans on filing a bill this session to open up the caps on licenses and get rid of “vertical integration,” which requires treatment centers to wear three hats: as growers, processors and distributors of the drug. Brandes also added that people should be able to smoke the drug if that’s what their doctors prescribe.
“What other drug does the government tell you how to ingest?” said the St. Petersburg Republican, who was an early supporter of medical marijuana. “It’s a doctor-patient issue. The government doesn’t insert themselves in there.”
Brandes also suggested that Florida should not only be expanding access to medical marijuana but be posturing for recreational marijuana as well. John Morgan, the attorney who bankrolled the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Florida in 2016, says he will get a recreational use measure on the 2020 ballot.
The future for Florida
But could recreational pot work in Florida? Skyler McKinley, a former deputy director of Colorado’s marijuana office, says the state would be better off waiting a couple of years until there’s more insight on whether recreational use is even good for states.
He said states looking to legalize recreational marijuana should build out a heavily regulated marketplace without room for error. In Colorado, for example, unregistered caregivers are allowed to grow plants that aren’t regularly checked on or tested for pesticides. In California, it costs less to grow marijuana plants without registering with the state.
He said voters will generally agree with a highly regulated system, which could work for both recreational users and medical marijuana patients at the same time.
The coexistence of the markets is a policy challenge, he said. “Aligning two systems is much harder than making one robust one.”