Jacksonville Plant Nursery, Others Challenge Marijuana Licensee Selections

Loop's nursery has locations on Jacksonville's Westside and in the St. Johns area.
Credit Loop's Nursery

Nurseries have filed more than a dozen challenges to the medical-marijuana licenses granted by Florida health officials, with some asking that the licensing process be put on hold until their petitions are heard in court.

As of Monday's 5 p.m. deadline to challenge the licenses, the Department of Health had received 13 petitions, according to agency spokeswoman Mara Gambineri.

Jacksonville's Loop's Nursery, Plants of Ruskin, Tornello Landscape, Redlands Nursery, Alpha Foliage, Dewar's, and McCrory's Sunny Hill Nursery on Monday joined three other nurseries that filed petitions late last week challenging the award of the five licenses. Some of the nurseries filed multiple challenges.

A three-member panel comprised of the health department's Office of Compassionate Use Executive Director Christian Bax; his predecessor, Patricia Nelson; and agency accountant Ellyn Hutson late last month named the winners of the licenses, one in each of five regions of the state. The winners were chosen from more than two dozen applications.

But the challenges question the panel's scoring and also accuse the department of failing to give due process by not allowing the competitors to defend their presentations before the licenses were awarded.

The challenges are likely to inject yet another delay into the drawn-out attempt to get non-euphoric marijuana products, authorized by lawmakers last year, to families of children with rare forms of epilepsy. Under the law, pushed by those families, doctors can order the treatment for individuals with severe muscle spasms or cancer.

Gambineri said the department "will review each challenge and determine the best path forward to get this product to children with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer. We remain focused on moving forward."

The law authorized five dispensing organizations to grow, process and distribute marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. Nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 continuous years in Florida and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants were eligible to apply for one of the five coveted licenses.

The medical marijuana applications were developed by a rare "negotiated rulemaking" committee, selected by Nelson, in February after health officials' first stab at a rule last year was tossed by Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins.

Four of the five applicants chosen to receive a "dispensing organization" license were represented on the committee, several of the challenges point out.

"It appears that the entities that were chosen to serve on the committee were disproportionately scored higher than other applicants based on non-objective, undisclosed and unsupported factors," lawyers for Tornello, also known as Tornello/3 Boys Farm, argued.

Tornello is one of four growers: Perkins, Tropiflora and Plants of Ruskin, which are challenging Alpha Foliage's license in the Southwest region of the state. Loop's Nursery and San Felasco are challenging the selection of winner Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in the Northeast region.

Alpha Foliage, which also applied in the Northwest region, received a "significantly lower score" on that application than its winning application in the Southwest, noted lawyers for Tornello/3Boys Farm, which came in second.

The nursery also questioned changed scores on Alpha's and Tornello's applications.

"There is no indication on the score cards as to the reason why the scores were changed or whether the scores were changed prior to or after the time the score cards were combined for totaling," lawyer J. Stephen Menton wrote.

Alpha and Redlands Nursery, owned by John and Carolyn DeMott, both applied in two separate regions. Alpha filed a challenge in the Northwest region, and Redlands filed challenges in the Central and Southeast regions on Monday.

Jacksonville-based Loop's Nursery, affiliated with the Stanley family, whose "Charlotte's Web" cannabis has become synonymous with low-THC marijuana, accused the selection panel of failing to choose the best applicant for the job.

Loop's was "the only applications in the Northeast region that satisfies all mandatory statutory and regulatory criteria for approval," the nursery's lawyer Jon Moyle argued.

"Loop's is the most dependable and most qualified applicant, and is the only applicant with the current operational infrastructure to rapidly and consistently produce high quality low-THC derivative products and to make such products widely available and accessible to qualified patients within the Northeast region," Moyle wrote.

The Florida Department of Health says these are all the challenges it received: 

Northwest

  • Alpha-Surterra
  • Tree-King Tree Farm, Inc.

Northeast

  • San Felasco Nurseries (2 challenges)
  • Loop’s Nursery and Greenhouses

Central

  • McCrory’s Sunny Hill Nursery
  • Dewar Nurseries
  • Redland-Surterra

Southwest

  • TropiFlora
  • Perkins Nursery
  • Tornello Landscape
  • Plants of Ruskin

Southeast

  • Redland-Surterra

In a written statement, DOH says, "The department remains committed to getting this product to children with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer as safely and quickly as possible. The department is in the process of reviewing all petitions filed and evaluating the path to keep this process moving forward."

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