How a Legacy of Racism Could Stain Florida's New Medical Marijuana Law

This piece is a follow-up to a piece which first ran in The Leaf Online, titled “Corruption Alleged in Drafting of Charlotte’s Web Rules.

Florida’s medical marijuana program is broken, and the only realistic chance of reforming it this year runs a significant risk of codifying a shameful history of institutional racism directed against the state’s African-American farmers.

The reform opportunity takes the form of a Senate Bill, SPB 7066, which may be taken up on the full Senate floor as soon as this week. SPB 7066 would amend the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act (CMCA), popularly known as the “Charlotte’s Web law,” which only permits a small number of licensees to produce cannabis oil rich in CBD but subject to an arbitrary 0.8% THC cap. Under the proposed bill, Florida’s medical program would become more inclusive by increasing the number of licenses available to would-be producers and other reforms.

Unfortunately, SPB 7066’s spirit of inclusiveness only goes so far. As of press time, the bill’s current language preserved a CMCA provision determining which Florida farmers would be qualified to hold a license to grow medical marijuana under the state’s new program — a provision which appears racially neutral on its face but when read in the context of local history is revealed to have perniciously racist purpose. The provision, a requirement that only farms which have operated continuously for at least 30 years and have a capacity of at least 400,000 plants be considered for a cultivation license, has been challenged by the state’s Black Farmers Association (BFA), an organization which represents one of the state’s most historically victimized groups.

A little background here: Institutional racism prevented minority farmers from owning farms until the 1970s. The practice was so pervasive in Florida that it led to class action lawsuits and some of the largest civil rights settlements in American history: Pigford I and II paid out nearly $1.3 billion dollars to more than 13,000 farmers. The legacy created by Pigford makes the 30-year/400,000 plant requirement another manifestation of institutional racism, as only a few black- and minority-owned farms were able to take advantage of the relatively slim window of opportunity to grow to the size required by state law.

“People are overlooking small farmers, urban farmers, the new generation of farmers that don’t have huge farms,” said Howard Gunn Jr, President of the BFA. “We’re just asking for them to make it equitable, to give us the chance to participate in the process.” Gunn worries that the voters are being left “intentionally uninformed” by the legislature and the problem “isn’t just with cannabis.” Minority legislators didn’t appeal to their constituents, leaving groups like the BFA scrambling to get a grip on the situation when it was nearly a done deal. “Now that we know what has taken place, we hope the Senate will rethink the requirements or prepare for lawsuits. We don’t want hold up the process; we just want them to hear our concerns.”

The discriminatory licensing requirement is not the only way in which cannabis laws have discriminated against African-Americans in the Sunshine State. In addition to the legacy of racism from Pigford, the drug war is also responsible for an egregious racial disparity in arrests for cannabis possession in Florida, where blacks are 4.2 times as likely as whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. While this isn’t as high as some states – like Iowa, where blacks are 8.3 times as likely to be arrested – it isn’t as low as Hawai’i, the only state to have no white/black arrest disparity at all.

Given the monumental weight of a long history of racism continuing all the way up to the present day, it may well be that the only way to permanently end discrimination codified in the state’s cannabis prohibitions and licensing requirements, is to repeal them altogether.

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