Health professionals were not able to meet a legislatively mandated deadline this past Tuesday to give out five new medical-marijuana licenses, stated by the head of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Christian Bax, the marijuana office’s executive director, blamed the hold up on Hurricane Irma and a pending obstacle to a recently passed law that ordered the Department of Health to increase the number of medical marijuana licenses.

The law, passed during a June special session, was created to carry out a November constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida. A crucial part of the law was expanding the number of workers in what could turn into a highly lucrative industry.

The law called for an overall increase of 10 licenses, some of which have already been awarded, by Oct. 3. It also specified that one license goes to a black farmer who had been part of settled lawsuits about discrimination by the federal government against black farmers.

A lawsuit filed this month challenges the constitutionality of that part of the law, alleging that the statute is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The lawsuit, filed by Panama City farmer Columbus Smith, contends that the measure is what is known as an unconstitutional “special law.”

In a letter to legislative leaders signed this past Friday, Bax wrote that his office has “worked diligently to implement” the new law, but that the issuance of five new medical marijuana licenses by last week Tuesday posed an “extraordinarily challenging deadline.”

In addition, response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Irma “necessitated the mobilization of all available department assets for nearly two weeks,” Bax wrote.

Bax also pointed the finger at his office’s inability to meet the deadline on Smith’s lawsuit.

“The OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) is aware of its important role in continuing to move this process forward to provide patient access as quickly and safely as possible. However, recent history has emphasized the importance of getting the MMTC (medical marijuana treatment center) licensure process right the first time,” he wrote.

Marijuana industry insiders have for some time believed that the agency would not be able to meet the deadline, yet Bax’s letter from this past Friday informing legislators of the delay made it official. As late as last week, a Department of Health spokeswoman said that the deadline remained “the goal.”

The evolution of the medical-marijuana industry in Florida has been filled with legal and regulatory challenges since its beginning after a 2014 law legalized low-THC treatments for a small number of patients.

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