13 challenges filed over medical marijuana licenses

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When Florida's Office of Compassionate Care named five nurseries to grow and distribute medical marijuana in the state, many expected there would be a few challenges filed — but not the more than a dozen that had landed by Monday's deadline.

Department of Health officials said in an email that 13 administrative challenges across all five regions have been received. Lobbyists and officials who have been following the process had estimated there would be eight at the most.

"I think the Department of Health has done a great job with the process, but I think now everyone will take a step back and assess what the next step is," said Taylor Patrick Biehl, who represents the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. "By no means is anyone doing any finger-pointing. This was something that was expected and that both sides have prepared for."

The Office of Compassionate Care named the five nurseries on Nov. 23. In order to qualify, nurseries had to have been in business in Florida for at least 30 years and grown a minimum of 400,000 plants at the time of the application.

The five nurseries selected were Hackney Nursery Company in Quincy (Northwest), Alachua's Chestnut Hill Tree Farm (Northeast), Costa Nursery Farms of Miami (Southeast), Alpha Foliage in Homestead (Southwest) and Winter Garden's Knox Nursery (Central).

Four of the five nurseries selected — Hackney, Chestnut Hill, Costa and Knox — were represented on the rules committee.

Chestnut Hill has filed a counterclaim in case the decision to award them a license is overturned.

San Felasco Nurseries/Grandiflora in Gainesville and Homestead's Redland Nursery filed two challenges apiece. San Felasco/Grandiflora's are based on processes with the screening for a license in the Northeast region while Redland has challenges in two different regions (Southeast and Central).

The Southwest region has the greatest number of challenges with four: TropiFlora LLC (Sarasota), Perkins Nursery (LaBelle), Plants of Ruskin and Tornello Landscape/3 Boys Farm (Ruskin). Alpha Foliage, which was awarded the license in the Southwest region, filed the lone administrative challenge in the Northwest region.

Other challenges in the Central region were posted by McCrory's Sunny Hill Nursery (Eustis) and Dewar Nurseries (Apopka). Loop's Nursery and Greenhouses in Jacksonville has filed a challenge in the Northeast.

The Florida Legislature passed the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act in 2014, allowing patients to receive low-THC cannabis after obtaining permission from their physician. The cannabis is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, which induces euphoria, but high in cannabidiol (CBD). Advocates say the cannabidiol can help children with severe epilepsy and patients with advanced forms of cancer.

The process of awarding the licenses, however, has been fraught with legal challenges. Health officials first proposed awarding the licenses via a lottery system, but that was struck down by a judge. A three-person committee was then established to screen applications and select the nurseries.

The delays frustrated many legislators who fought for the bill. One of them, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he had been hopeful the process would move forward, but noted it now appears it may be delayed a little longer.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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