More than two years after lawmakers legalized a limited type of medical marijuana, an administrative law judge heard arguments Wednesday in a dispute about whether a Northeast Florida nursery should receive one of the highly sought-after licenses to grow, process and distribute the non-euphoric pot.
Jacksonville-based Loop's Nursery is the only grower in the state that has a relationship with a Colorado-based company that produces Charlotte's Web, a brand that has become synonymous with the kind of low-THC marijuana approved by the Legislature and authorized by Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
The nursery is also linked to Holley and Peyton Moseley, a Pensacola couple who went on a crusade to get the law passed, believing the low-THC treatment could dramatically reduce or eliminate life-threatening seizures for children like their daughter, RayAnn.
As the Moseleys waited outside the courtroom, lawyers for the nursery and the state spent much of Wednesday wrangling over issues ranging from keeping the names of investors secret to accusations of "gamesmanship" about making witnesses available for depositions.
Jon Moyle, a lawyer representing Loop's, told Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben that the nursery should have received the highest score in the Northeast region from a three-member panel that last year ranked applications from groups seeking the licenses.
Instead, the panel granted a license to Gainesville-based Chestnut Hill Tree Farm. Health officials later granted a second license in the Northeast region to San Felasco Nurseries, which received the highest score in the region but was ruled ineligible. San Felasco received a license after an administrative law judge earlier this year ruled that the Department of Health wrongly rejected the nursery.
Loop's not only is affiliated with the company that developed the Charlotte's Web strain of low-THC marijuana, launched by Joel Stanley and his brothers in Colorado, but also has up to 650,000 square feet of greenhouse space available to grow the cannabis, Moyle said Wednesday.
"Loop's will be able to show and convince you that it met the statutory requirements and is entitled to a license, when compared to Chestnut Hill and San Felasco," Moyle said. "Not only does Loop's have the facilities in place when they filed their application, they know how to use them. That is a big point, because just because you put something in your application that says, 'I'm going to do these greenhouses' but you've never run them and you don't know how to operate them … that is a disadvantage that we think is worth noting."
But Eduardo Lombard, a lawyer representing the Department of Health, said that possible confusion about Charlotte's Web, the name given colloquially by many lawmakers to the 2014 legislation, doesn't mean that Loop's deserves a license.
"What they want to convince you of is this is their bill. If it's the Charlotte's Web bill, how is it that the Charlotte's Web applicant doesn't have a license? Well, there is more to it than just a brand name. You have to prove more than 'We have a great brand name and we're effective,' " Lombard said. "To come in here and sort of suggest to you that somehow, because they have licenses to the Charlotte's Web brand, that makes them the best, I think is an overstatement to the point of maybe misrepresentation."
Lombard also raised questions about Loop's and a variety of other companies or partnerships linked to the nursery. Applicant Loop's Nurseries is also tied to Loop's Dispensaries, a separate organization. The nursery also is affiliated with Realm of Caring Florida, a non-profit organization headed by Holley Moseley. Ray of Hope 4 Florida, a limited liability company whose managers include Peyton Moseley, has the exclusive rights to sell Charlotte's Web in the state. Loop's has a contract with Ray of Hope, the nursery's owner, David Loop, said during testimony Wednesday.
Loop told Lombard that his nursery will pay royalties, based on sales, to Ray of Hope.
Lombard quibbled with Moyle over testimony from witnesses Lombard complained he had not had adequate time to depose. Also Wednesday, Moyle persuaded McKibben to keep secret the names of several investors provided by Loop, something Lombard strenuously objected to, citing a circuit judge's order in a separate case in which the judge ruled investors' names were not trade secrets.
At one point, McKibben appeared to grow tired of the legal adversaries' complaints in what has been a lengthy and contentious battle.
"I don't have to repeat too often how disappointed I am in how the whole pre-hearing process has gone," the judge said. "It's been unlike anything I've ever seen as well."
The state has paid the Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli law firm, where Lombard is a partner, more than $545,000 to represent the Department of Health in challenges since the 2014 law passed.
Holley Moseley told reporters that she is frustrated by delays in carrying out the law, which has been tangled in legal disputes.
The Department of Health initially awarded one license in each of five regions. Lawmakers this year revamped the law in an effort to expedite getting the products into the hands of patients. Under the new law, each of the five dispensing organizations is allowed to keep its license, and the Department of Health must also issue licenses to applicants whose legal challenges are successful. The law also authorized full-strength medical marijuana for terminally ill patients.
"There are kids waiting for treatment that deserve treatment. The Department of Health is fighting the nursery who is saying, 'We are ready, we can do this, we can make this happen now.' That is what this is all about," Moseley said Wednesday.
Stanley told reporters that he picked Loop's based on the belief that the Jacksonville grower, a family-owned business that has existed for more than six decades, would be the best partner.
"I've been doing this probably longer than anyone, and they have the right infrastructure and they are the right people. Our hearts and minds align," Stanley said. "We really visited every qualifying nursery in the state, and they (Loop's) were the one we chose for various reasons. If anyone really knows what it takes to do this, I'd be one of them."