‘We don’t have the generational wealth.’ Black farmers left behind in Florida’s medical marijuana boom
Ray Warthen, a fifth-generation Black farmer, has his eye on Florida’s burgeoning $1 billion medical marijuana cash crop.
He’s already made a mark in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood, transforming a city lot into a community farm with beehives, bananas, collard greens and other plants.
“As Black farmers, we don’t have the funding,” said Warthen, a 44-year-old lifelong Floridian who grew up in Riviera Beach and now lives in Minneola. “We don’t have the generational wealth that’s been built up from all the previous farmers and farm land.”
The industry could grow even more lucrative in coming years if Florida joins other states in legalizing recreational marijuana. But so far a tightly regulated market has produced a system where only those with deep pockets and extensive connections can break into and benefit.
‘What’s going on in Florida is shameful’
Unlike other states, Florida has no social equity programs to assist Black entrepreneurs with getting into the marijuana industry. State lawmakers set aside one license for a Black farmer involved in the class-action Pigford discrimination lawsuit, but it hasn’t been issued. The Pigford settlement addressed racial discrimination in farm lending during the 1980s and 1990s.
Under a new rule, the application fee for Black farmers more than doubled from the $60,830 paid by other license holders. Of the roughly 2,000 Black farmers in Florida, it’s estimated only about 100 are recognized members of the Pigford settlement.
“Right now, what is going on in Florida is just shameful,” Money said. “They have to break this monopoly. There are barriers being put up to exclude folks. It’s not just Black and brown people. States have ridiculous fees knowing no average person could apply.”
Florida’s medical marijuana industry is tightly regulated. Licenses are capped based on the number of patients, and just one company, Trulieve, accounts for more than 40% of sales. Florida has what is known as a “vertical integration model,” which means license holders are responsible for growing, distributing and dispensing medical marijuana from seed to sale.
Shortly after taking office in January 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis likened Florida’s medical marijuana system to a “cartel.” The licenses are so coveted they’ve been sold for as much as $67 million.
Florida’s 22 license holders operate 377 dispensaries across the state, according to the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. As the number of medical marijuana patients rises, the state is preparing to issue 19 new licenses, including the one that is set aside specifically for a Black farmer.
That Black-owned business would enter the market at least five years after the first medical marijuana dispensary opened in Florida.
The state now has one minority-owned marijuana company. Cookies, a California-based company co-founded by Bay-area rapper Berner, acquired a license and will set up its Florida headquarters in DeLand. Berner is of Mexican descent.
Even in states that have legalized recreational marijuana and implemented social equity programs, Black entrepreneurs are facing barriers because of predatory lending, high fees and straw applications that use minority equity partners to take advantage of assistance, Money said.
“We don’t have one social equity program that has been successful,” she said. “Black and brown folks went to prison for this and built the cannabis industry on the black market. Now that it’s legal, Black and brown folks can’t get into this industry.”
Comprehensive stats aren’t available on the racial makeup of marijuana business ownership. A 2017 survey by the Marijuana Business Daily, an influential trade publication, tagged the percentage of marijuana businesses with Black owners at 4%.
Political connections shaped market
Politically connected businesses got a head start in Florida’s marijuana market. The state’s initial medical marijuana law, passed in 2014, limited the first five licenses to nurseries in continuous business in the state for at least 30 years with 400,000 or more plants under cultivation.
Lawmakers reasoned it would keep fly-by-night operations out of the state, but the rules also carried immense influence on who would benefit financially from Florida’s “green rush.”
Trulieve, the state’s dominant medical marijuana company, originated with three North Florida nurseries, including one owned by Thad Beshears, the brother of former state Rep. Halsey Beshears. The company’s CEO is Kim Rivers, whose husband is a longtime friend of Beshears. Her husband, J.T. Burnette, is a longtime friend of Beshears.
Burnette was convicted in August of federal charges stemming from a probe into Tallahassee City Hall corruption. During the trial. prosecutors played a recording of Burnette bragging that he worked with Beshears to tailor the law to benefit Trulieve, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Questioned by prosecutors, Burnette said he overstated his role when talking to the undercover FBI agents.
Rivers and Thad Beshears are the two biggest shareholders in Trulieve, holding hundreds of millions of dollars of stock in the company, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing earlier this year.
Black farmers don’t have the same lobbying muscle or the political clout to break into the business, Warthen said.
“There is no one looking out for the Black farmer when it comes to marijuana licenses,” he said. “We know all the people who are applying are all corporations and groups that know each other. They are going to look out for each other. There is no one looking out for us.”
Warthen, though, has gotten some support from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who held a news conference at his farm recently to highlight the plight of Black farmers in the marijuana industry. Fried got her start in politics as a marijuana lobbyist and also has ties to many of the players in the industry. Fried recently revealed that she is personally invested in Harvest Health & Recreation— a company that Trulieve acquired in a $2.1 billion deal. Her fiancé, Jake Bergmann co-founded Surterra, which won one of Florida’s earliest marijuana licenses.
The Florida Department of Health primarily regulates medical marijuana, but Fried’s agency has some regulatory oversight over edibles and hemp. Fried, a Democrat running for governor, has pledged to sell her marijuana holdings if elected next year.
Oklahoma, one of the country’s most conservative states, has taken a different approach to medical marijuana that Money said is friendlier to Black-owned businesses. The state’s application fee for growers, processors, dispensaries and transporters is $2,500, and no cap has been placed on the number of licenses.
That’s led to an explosion of medical marijuana businesses with the state issuing more than 12,000 licenses. The state’s hands-off approach, though, has also led to reports of contaminated products, fraud and black market diversion.
Parramore’s ‘emerald’ farm
Warthen is a project manager by day, but he is known by a different title at his other job: the Black Mamba farmer.
Warthen’s day job is with Brightline, a high-speed rail line that eventually will run from Miami to Orlando. When he clocks out, he heads to Infinite Zion Farms on South Street in Parramore, Orlando’s historically Black neighborhood.
Parramore is separated from more prosperous neighborhoods by Division Street, a thoroughfare long seen as a dividing line between white and Black Orlando.
“It divides the haves and the have nots,” he said. “The Black and white sides of town. You can clearly see the distinction as you are crossing over from the Amway Arena to Parramore. It goes from high dollar to vacant land and homeless people.”
The farm is on three-tenths of an acre, just a short walk to the old Wells’Built Hotel, where Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and other musical legends stayed during Segregation. The neighborhood has faced decades of decline, and its median household income is only $19,275, much lower than the rest of Orlando.
Warthen grew to love agriculture working with his father in their backyard garden in South Florida, where they harvested avocados, bananas and mangoes. His family has known racial violence, too. Warthen’s great-great uncle is Julius “July” Perry, who was lynched by a white mob during the Ocoee Massacre in 1920.
Warthen started Infinite Zion Farms in 2019, and the community garden now grows nearly 500 pounds of produce a month. The long hours he spends tending to his plants earned him the nickname “Black Mamba farmer” from neighbors. He calls the plot an “emerald” in Orlando’s concrete jungle.
Warthen lost his father to prostate cancer in 2010. Watching him undergo chemotherapy is one of the reasons Warthen said he wants to grow medical marijuana.
“I know the spirit of him is here,” he said as he stood in his urban farm. “When I am out here, my heartbeat goes to 60 beats per minute. It’s just calm.”
© 420 Intel