By Vanessa Orr
When the state of Florida first established the medical cannabis industry in 2017, they created a vertically integrated system in which a limited number of companies received medical marijuana licenses, which allowed those businesses to handle all aspects of the business including growing, processing and distributing products.
Three years later, the state has begun seeing court challenges to this decision, which many—including cultivators, potential distributors, and the people who voted for the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana—believe is unconstitutional. “Did Florida get it right? In some respects, yes, but in most cases, no,” said Rick Naya, a South Florida native who was named the “Great Grandfather of Hybrid Cannabis” by Sensi magazine in August of 2018. Naya is currently a New Hampshire state primary cannabis lobbyist who has led the way to legalization of medical cannabis in that state, as well as executive director of New Hampshire NORML. “Most of the state of Florida is already aware of this; the vertically integrated monopolies that were created are illegal,” added Naya, a certified cannabis grower for the past 40 years. According to Naya, while there are some benefits to a vertically integrated market, including the fact that it makes it easier for the Florida Department of Agriculture to inspect facilities for compliance, it is not producing a quality product, not providing users with the choices that they want. “We’re now hearing that many times, patients are saying the product is moldy or that there are other problems,” said Naya. “But how can you trust vertically integrated companies to be forthright and honest? There’s a sense of complicity that comes from vertical integration, and people are beginning to demand third-party testing to hold companies accountable.” He adds that there are many ethical companies out there that operate at a high level of transparency, but that those that do not are benefiting from the fact that competition is limited in the market. “When the medical marijuana arena was created in Florida, we didn’t realize that lobbyists for large corporations were intricately integrated with the political system of Florida, so they were able to manipulate much of what the citizens of Florida voted for,” said Naya, adding that this left a lot of people very angry. One of the major complaints is that because of these monopolies, people are not able to purchase the products they want from the businesses they want. The alternative to vertical integration would be to allow companies to play different roles within the market, which could lead to a more varied industry. “The cannabis culture has a way of weeding out the good and bad within our arena; we hold wannabes to the very highest levels of business,” said Naya. “We’re not Cheech and Chong anymore—we are extremely educated professionals who work in all facets of the industry. “The state should open up the market to anybody who wants to be in it—If I want to open a landscaping business and I follow all the rules to do that, I’m allowed. So why can’t we do that with cannabis?” he added. “The corporations came in hard and heavy, capitalized on the law to get markets established, and they’ve done well. But it was illegal, and now citizens’ voices are finally being heard.” Naya pictures the medical marijuana industry developing just like the craft beer industry, where products are designed to meet customer demand. “Craft breweries are now monopolizing most of the beer sales, and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “Just like craft beer, small craft award-winning cannabis producers have local followings, and can create different brands and provide a larger variety of products to work with people’s medical conditions. They are not as susceptible to the need for large scale returns-on-investment (ROI).” Naya adds that the market is already starting to show some cracks as lessened demand for certain products is forcing larger companies to scale back. “You can’t just extract a terpene and put a flavonoid in it; you need to start crafting what people want,” he said. If the state were to overhaul its system, Naya suggests starting with social economic reforms and working with the minorities that have been most impacted by the current laws. “Half the problems of racial injustice stem from the failed drug war on cannabis, so the state should start by working with minority-owned, mom-and-pop shops to help them get into the market,” he said. “If they don’t have the revenue to do it, the state can provide them with business opportunities using the funds that have already been collected by the medical marijuana industry. “Florida needs to learn from its mistakes, and unfortunately, big money only learns after it affects their investments,” he said.