GPD and UF Report Prowling And Exposure Incident

By on April 16th, 2015 | Last updated: April 20, 2015 at 10:51 am

An incident of prowling and exposure of sexual organs occurred Thursday at 7:30 a.m., according to a press release from the University of Florida Police Department.

According to the information provided by GPD, the victim saw a black male in his 50s looking into the window of her apartment.

The suspect left the area and headed westbound on SW 5th Ave.

He was described as wearing gray and blue plaid blue jeans and a red T-shirt.

Captain Jeff Holcomb of UPD said the university put out a timely warning on the incident because the incident took place close to campus and in an area where many students reside.

In the GPD press release, the suspect was reported to have walked away from the victim’s shower window and ducked down behind the wall of a covered parking area behind her residence.  The victim stated that she stood in the window and watched him continued to peek at her.  He then stepped out from behind the wall and appeared to be masturbating in front of her.

Two beer bottles were found outside of the shower window that did not belong to the victim.

When taken in for a lineup, the victim eliminated all individuals except two, but was unable to positively identify the suspect.

If anyone has information about the incident, they should call GPD at 352-955-1818. If callers wish to remain anonymous, they can call Crime Stoppers at 352-372-7867.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

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April 16, 2015: Morning News in 90

By on April 16th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 11:29 am

José Zozaya produced this update.

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RISING ABOVE: Gainesville Woman Empowers Others Living With HIV/AIDS

By on April 16th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 7:39 am

This story is part one of a three-part profile series titled Rising Above.

Marvene Edwards tested positive for HIV in 1987. The 31-year-old mother of four had been beaten, raped and shot in the head by two men after walking home alone from a nightclub early one Saturday morning in Princeton, Florida, southwest of Miami.

“When I heard the diagnosis I was like, ‘I don’t hear this, this isn’t real,’” Marvene recalled.

She lost her right eye, lost custody of her children and lost her purpose in life. To escape, she turned to alcohol and cocaine and accumulated an arrest record. That was Marvene’s life for about 10 years: “drinkin’ and druggin’.”

But she did not go by the name Marvene then. “Peaches” was her street name, her crack-smoking alter ego; and it was Peaches that called the shots for nearly a decade.

The turning point came in 2003, when she got a call from her doctor, Jill.

“She told me about my count, and that it was under 200. That means that I was — AIDS. It was not just HIV positive,” Marvene said. “And it was basically because of the things that I was doing. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t taking my meds. I wasn’t doing any of those things.”

Dr. Jill told her she had “one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave,” and Marvene said that hit home. It marked the beginning of a new life.


Marvene’s three youngest children were taken by protective services when she was in a comatose state after the rape. Her oldest son went to live with his aunt in Alachua County, and when he graduated from high school, Marvene moved to Gainesville.

She met people in her new community who helped her redirect her life — a life where the drug homes and jail time were replaced with support groups and church services.

Marvene began volunteering at the Alachua County Health Department in 2004.

“I was volunteering because I was lost, and I found myself in this work,” she said. “Before, I had no purpose, but this gave me purpose.”

Her volunteering eventually turned into a paying job.

“It paid, maybe not in dollars, but it paid,” she quipped in an off-the-cuff and yet profound sort of way.

Now, each week she visits homeless shelters like Grace Marketplace and the St. Francis house — where she was once a resident — to talk with the people there and hand out pamphlets and condoms.

She is also the president of Positives Empowering Positives, a local organization designed to encourage those living with HIV/AIDS and to remind them there is more to life than being HIV positive.

“HIV don’t make the person who they are. AIDS don’t make the person who they are,” she said. “It’s something they are living with — it’s not them.”


Marvene remembers the day Peaches died. She wrote her alter ego a goodbye letter, burned it and mixed the ashes in soil.

She bought a withered, half-dead palm tree from a local grocery store. It cost her about a dollar. The store was planning on throwing it away, but Marvene said she wanted it.

It was a reflection of herself.

Marvene Edwards poses for a portrait in front of one of her palm trees outside her Gainesville home.

Marvene Edwards poses for a portrait in front of one of her palm trees outside her Gainesville home. Steven Gallo / WUFT News

“That’s me in a sense. I was dead…fading away,” she said.

She mixed seeds with the soil and ashes, transplanted the palm tree and nurtured it back to life. The once-withered plant has since flourished and grown into two healthy palms she admires in her front yard each day.

A reflection of herself, indeed.


Today, Marvene is married, she has relationships with all her children and she has 16 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, their photos filling album upon album in her modest living room.

“It’s more than I could have dreamed for, basically. Someone took the time to believe in me enough, and they put me in a place where I truly have a purpose,” Marvene’s voice wavered, tears in her eyes. “Life without purpose is not worth living, and now I know that I have a purpose.”


For more information about getting tested for HIV in Alachua County, visit the health department website. You can also call the Florida HIV/AIDS hotline at 1-800-FLA-AIDS (352-2437).

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City Aquires Land Surrounding GRACE Marketplace

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Updated 6:15 p.m.: The city of Gainesville has leased a portion of Newnans Lake State Forest, which surrounds GRACE Marketplace.

The agreement grants the city the use of 10 acres of land for 50 years at no cost from the Department of Agriculture. The land is currently occupied by the Dignity Village homeless encampment.

The City of Gainesville is finalizing plans with the state to lease 10 acres of Newnans Lake State Forest for 50 years at no cost to the city. The land is currently occupied by the homeless residents of Dignity Village

The City of Gainesville has leased 10 acres of Newnans Lake State Forest for 50 years at no cost to the city. The land is currently occupied by the homeless residents of Dignity Village. Graphic courtesy of the Florida Forest Service

In lieu of payment, the state is allowed to use an access road that runs through city property, said Rick Dolan, the Waccasassa Forestry Center Manager.

The Florida Forest Service’s Waccasassa Forestry Center Field Unit was formerly charged with managing the land.

Theresa Lowe, executive director of the North Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, said the lease is meant to give the city greater control over who is allowed to stay on the property.

“We’ve now taken responsibility and liability on the ten acres out there,” said Gainesville City Commissioner Todd Chase.


Lowe said that while most of the residents are well-behaved, troublemakers cause issues every now and then. Previously when the police were called, officers were unable to trespass on those individuals without trespassing on everyone else.

Gainesville Police Department responded to 414 calls at GRACE Marketplace between June 15, 2014 and January 15, 2015, according to GPD.

Wednesday night there were two violent incidents at Dignity Village, one of which left a man hospitalized.

With the area under city control GPD officials said they are looking at ways to increase police presence.

“There’s a finite number of people, so definitely with the recent violence, Dignity is going to get some more patrols,” GPD spokesman Ben Tobias said.

The city will also vote on new rules for the area meant to provide a safer atmosphere for the residents.

Dignity Village formed following the forced eviction of residents from a previous encampment near the Hawthorne Trail last July.

David Cleveland, a resident of Dignity Village, said he welcomed the plan. He said he sees people come to GRACE immediately after being released from jail. The Alachua County Jail is less than a half mile away from GRACE.

Cleveland also said he sees widespread drug use and prostitution, and he believes the city needs to put its foot down if it is serious about making the area a place for people to get their lives together.

“If you have regulations, it’ll create the idea that you have to act a certain way to stay here,” Cleveland said. “You have to make sure they know there are rules and laws out here.”

City Spokesman Bob Woods said the city’s motivation in acquiring the land was to provide a safer atmosphere for residents on the property.

“Without the city having ownership, it becomes difficult to enforce rules and to control camps from spiraling into areas without proper sanitation and health control,” Woods said.

Jon DeCarmine, director of operations at GRACE Marketplace, said they hope the deal will provide a safe environment while allowing residents to access services from GRACE.

“On paper [Dignity Village and GRACE] are two distinct places, but in reality, we provide services to the people out there,” DeCarmine said. “Any improvements to Dignity Village will make what we do here better and more effective.”

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Rep. Perry Confirms GRU Governance Bill Is Dead

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 10:43 am

Updated 10:30 a.m.: Gainesville residents did not have the privilege of overseeing their utilities provider and they won’t anytime soon.

A bill in the Florida House of Representatives that would have given local voters the option to create an oversight board to help govern Gainesville Regional Utilities is now dead according to state Rep. Keith Perry, R- Gainesville.

W._Keith_Perry1“My bill simply gave the voters of Gainesville an option to decide on a governing structure for GRU,” Perry said. “It is a $430 million enterprise.”

House bill 1325 was originally filed in early March by Perry in response to complaints from citizens about high electric rates, which he noted are the highest in the state. As the bill was moving through the house, he said he believes its process was hindered by the city.

“The city has spent a lot of money on very high-paid lobbyists, with one intention: to kill the bill,” he said. “They did a good job of maneuvering and getting the right people to not hear the bill.”

The Regulatory Affairs Committee postponed their consideration of the bill this week. However, since the Committee will not meet again during this legislative session, the bill will not progress.

Additionally, the highly debated bill would have capped the transfer of money to the city’s general fund at 9 percent of GRU revenues.

Commissioner Todd Chase is confident that the city is managing GRU well, but does want to see a more permanent change to the governing structure in the future.

“I was originally opposed to the first bill that was released,” Chase said. “But in the end I was ultimately leaning towards having a vote of the people to at least determine if they even want to change the governance.”

Chase said he and the rest of the commission are working on language for the next ballot to allow voters to choose. He commends Perry for doing what he believes is in the best interest of his constituents.

“Perry has been an instrumental figure on keeping pressure on the city commission to take action,” Chase said. “We’ve [city commissioners] taken some significant steps to move towards what Perry was trying to do.”

While Perry hopes the city will address voters’ concerns itself, he has already started work on amendments to the bill and plans to re-file it in the next session, which will open in January of 2016.

“If the city comes up with what I think the majority of GRU customers want,” he said, “then I would have no reason to push anything in Tallahassee.”

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TV Show Gives College Student Second Chance

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm
Jannette Perez poses for a portrait outside of Pugh Hall on the University of Florida campus.

Jannette Perez poses for a portrait outside of Pugh Hall on the University of Florida campus. Nathalie Dortonne/WUFT

“Call me.”

Gina ‘Gigi’ Butler remembers receiving this life-changing message from her brother while he was in line at a famous New York City cupcake shop in September 2007.

Butler’s brother Steve told her that her cupcakes were better than the shop’s and encouraged her to open her own cupcake business.

The former housecleaner – who sang on the side – followed his advice.

She took out $100,000 cash advances on her credit card and opened the first Gigi’s Cupcakes in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 21, 2008. It is now the nation’s largest cupcake franchise.

Butler recently offered a similar life-changing experience to one of her employees.

Through the TV show “Undercover Boss,” she was able to award Jannette ‘Yane’ Perez $20,000. Butler empathized with Perez’ story, which unfolded during filming.

The producers of the show spent several months scouting about 35 Gigi’s Cupcakes locations before choosing the Gainesville shop, 3524 SW Archer Road, suite 130, as one of the stores to appear on the show.

Butler spent time at four Gigi’s Cupcakes locations for the 45-minute episode. The show’s producers chose the winners.

During the show’s episode, Butler donned a black wig, big glasses and a retainer to slur her speech. Her alias was Candace Plinkett, a single mother who was working at Gigi’s Cupcakes to raise money and start a business.

During filming, the 22-year-old told Butler disguised as Candace Plinkett how her mother died at an early age and her father was estranged from the family. Butler said she was touched by Perez’s story.

Perez dropped out of UF in 2011.

“I was dealing with a lot of stuff mentally with family issues, and I didn’t really talk to anyone about it,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was flunking out of school that I was like, ‘I don’t know I can’t do this any longer. I can’t keep living this way.'”

As a mentor and leader for the children and teen ministries at Alive Church in Gainesville, Perez gives youth the support she needed when she was struggling with depression at UF.

The aspiring counselor said she wants to work primarily with teenagers because she wants to push them to succeed.

Perez said she wouldn’t change anything about her childhood or family, because it made her into who she is.

The once-homeless 22-year-old said she used the money from “Undercover Boss” to pay off student loans from attending Santa Fe and to re-enroll at UF for the upcoming semester this June.

Perez added that she wants to give back to her community and create a scholarship using some of the money she received.

“(Perez) has done so much in her life,” Butler said, “and I’m so proud of her.”

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Rubio Announces Presidential Bid In Miami To Mixed Local Response

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 16, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Dennis Neutze stood outside under the blazing south Florida sun at 4 p.m. on Monday, waiting to escape the heat and enter Freedom Tower.

Red, white and blue lights shine on Freedom Tower on Monday night, after Sen. Marco Rubio announced his bid for the 2016 presidential election. Refugees who fled Cuba in the 1960s, away from Fidel Castro’s communist regime, were processed and documented inside Freedom Tower.

Red, white and blue lights shine on Freedom Tower on Monday night, after Sen. Marco Rubio announced his bid for the 2016 presidential election. Refugees who fled Cuba in the 1960s, away from Fidel Castro’s communist regime, were processed and documented inside Freedom Tower. Jose Zozaya / WUFT News

Neutze, 72, waited outside wearing a black-and-red designed T-shirt that read “Rubio for President 2016,” with the first-term senator’s face plastered on it.

Hundreds more gathered on that same sidewalk in downtown Miami — right on Biscayne Boulevard — to witness Sen. Marco Rubio publicly announce he will run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

“I think (Rubio) is a decent human being that’s going to do what’s best for the country and not what’s best for him,” Neutze said.

News of the senator’s bid leaked early, but that did not deter Rubio’s camp from hosting the live declaration at a location revered by south Florida’s Hispanic community.

Rubio told supporters inside the tower’s main room he hopes to usher in “a new American century,” remembering the country’s history and past lessons, while also looking toward the future.

Rubio is the third Republican senator to launch his campaign for the White House in 2016, along with fellow Cuban-American Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul.

All three contenders will not have completed their first terms as senators of their respective states — like former Illinois senator and current President Barack Obama — before running for president.

More GOP politicians will launch their own presidential campaigns over the coming months. The next likely candidate is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who acted as Rubio’s mentor when he served as Speaker of the House in Florida’s state congress from 2007 to 2009.

Neutze and other supporters left Monday’s event feeling hopeful for Rubio’s campaign. He said Rubio is not another Washington politician, but a man who understands what it means to be a public servant.

As the mass of spectators gathered outside, red, white and blue lights lit up Freedom Tower, a symbol of Rubio’s version of the American dream his campaign plans to use.

Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was born and raised in Miami. His father worked as a bartender, and his mother earned a living as a maid.

Rubio’s Floridian roots, however, do not stop just at the state’s southern end.

After attending one year at Tarkio College in Missouri on a football scholarship, Rubio returned to his native state and continued his education at Santa Fe College.

He eventually transferred to the University of Florida and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in political science in 1993.

According to Rubio’s memoir, though he did include a chapter about his time in North Central Florida, he felt more comfortable returning to Miami and graduating from the University of Miami Law School in 1996.

Juan Felipe Gers, 23, said he understands the bond Rubio felt that drew him back home after graduating.

Gers, a Georgia Tech graduate and Colombian immigrant who’s lived in south Florida for 14 years, said he feels Rubio’s appeal is a platform focused on economic opportunity and education reform, which should attract Hispanic votes that may traditionally have gone to the Democratic Party.

“The Republican Party’s platform, ideologically, totally connects with a Latin American’s experience and upbringing — respecting individual’s rights, lowering taxes, having respect for private property,” Gers said.

Francisco Belette, 54, left Cuba when he was 8 years old and knows the experience Rubio’s parents had to go through to escape the reach of the Castro Regime.

Belette, an oncologist in Fort Lauderdale, said he’s proud of having someone like Rubio running in 2016, but he won’t win his automatic vote.

“I don’t vote for anyone based on an ethnic background or a religious background or anything like that,” Belette said. “I like to see the person, whether it’s a man or a woman, and see what they are going to offer us as a future to make this country better and to lead us ahead.”

Others have voiced opposition to Rubio’s campaign.

Protestors also gathered outside of Freedom Tower to voice their disappointment with Rubio’s recent separation from immigration reform and his controversial views on environmental conservation.

Rubio introduced an immigration reform bill to Congress in 2013, but the bill gained no traction. He has since advocated for stronger border security.

Maria Palacios, the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, held posters and chanted “Undocumented, Unafraid!” with members from United We Dream, a student-led organization that advocates for undocumented immigrant rights.

As a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows certain undocumented immigrants to receive a renewable, two-year work permit, Palacios said she will not let politicians like Rubio undo policies that benefit undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant rights activists protest outside Freedom Tower during Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign announcement Monday afternoon.  The sign, written in Spanish, reads, “Rubio’s dream is our nightmare.”

Immigrant rights activists protest outside Freedom Tower during Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign announcement Monday afternoon. The sign, written in Spanish, reads, “Rubio’s dream is our nightmare.  Jose Zozaya / WUFT News

“He is attacking our community,” Palacios said, “and we are coming for him.”

Belette’s wife, Ivette, 43, is proud of how far the Hispanic community has advanced in contributing meaningfully to American politics.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants herself, Ivette Belette said she’s waiting to see what Rubio will do regarding the Obama administration’s approach to slowly lifting the Cuban Embargo enacted in 1960.

Rubio has publicly voiced his displeasure with the current White House administration’s diplomatic talks with Raul Castro and a regime that has had a dismal track record with human rights.

“I can understand that things about the embargo have not worked,” Ivette Belette said. “But if you’re going to change things, tell me how (we’re) going to help human rights. What are you going to get for them in return for this change?”

The next presidential election will not be held until Nov. 8, 2016. Until then, the challenges Rubio faces will come from his own party as he fights for the Republican nomination.

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April 15, 2015: Afternoon News in 90

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 15, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Virginia Hamrick produced this update.

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Gainesville’s Citizen On Patrol Program Expands, Deters Crime

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 15, 2015 at 3:44 pm

It’s not about guns and glory for the volunteers of Citizens on Patrol at the Gainesville Police Department; it’s about deterring crime.

Volunteer Sgt. Lon Ligon regularly waves to pedestrians while on patrol. The possibility of a would-be-criminal seeing Ligon before committing a crime may stop one from ever occurring.

“They will drive through and act as a deterrent to look for suspicious activity or suspicious vehicles,” said Officer Justin Torres, crime prevention volunteer coordinator for GPD. “…that’s one area that we don’t have to worry about driving through and it gives us a chance to go to another call.”

The program began in Gainesville in 2010, and Torres was named the volunteer coordinator last October. Torres is working to expand the program this month to more actively help police.

“I want the department to really come to rely on [the COPs] assistance, and to do that we need more,” Torres said.

There are currently 10 active Gainesville COPs, another young man in training and a few more applicants in the background check stage.

Volunteers go through constant training, which Torres is diversifying. The monthly training ranges from how to use communication equipment to how to recognize gang signs and how to react in a crisis.

COP 2014 group photo

The volunteers of GPD’s Citizens on Patrol deter crime simply by their presence. Volunteer Sgt. Lon Ligon said that he gets “a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back” out of it. To him, he says, it’s better than money. Photo courtesy of the Gainesville Police Department and Citizens on Patrol.

Robert Scott said he found the opportunity to pick up more responsibility attractive.

Scott is a network engineer for the University of Florida by day and an auxiliary officer for the Gainesville Police Department by night. Before becoming an auxiliary officer last October, he was a volunteer for Citizens on Patrol.

“It beats stamp collecting,” Scott said.

In October 2013, Scott and another COP, Rita Williams, helped rescue a couple lost in Loblolly Nature Park. An officer stayed on the phone with the couple while Scott and Williams, who were more familiar with the woods and trails, went to retrieve the couple and their dog.

“They weren’t in any real danger,” Scott said. “They were just cold and scared.”

Scott and Williams were later named Volunteers of the Year by GPD.

There is no limit to how many volunteers GPD can have. Citrus County with 500 COPs is a program Torres is hoping to emulate in his expansion of Gainesville’s COP program.

According to the 2013 census, there are about 10,000 more people in Citrus County than in Gainesville, but demographics may be behind the difference in volunteers. Citrus County is home to many retirees, while Gainesville has a large student population.

Deputy Andy McEwen, volunteer coordinator for the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, said he thinks the volunteers enjoy giving back to the community they have been a part of for so many years. Some COPs have just celebrated 30 years of volunteering with the Sheriff’s Office.

According to volunteer data from Independent Sector and McEwen’s estimates, Citrus County’s volunteers contributed more than 76,000 hours to the community last year, which saved more than $1.6 million dollars.

The Citrus County COPs are mainly recruited by word of mouth, McEwen said. In Gainesville, Torres is working to spread the word about volunteer opportunities at crime prevention events hosted by neighborhoods and local organizations. Torres and three other officers attend from about 12 to 16 events a week.


Hopeful COPs must be at least 19 years old and be willing to commit 16 hours a month to patrolling the streets and neighborhoods of Gainesville. Volunteers undergo an extensive background check— the same as a prospective officer.

As defined by Florida statute 943.10-8, an auxiliary law enforcement officer aids or assists a full-time or part-time law enforcement officer while under their direct supervision. Scott has the authority to arrest and “perform other law enforcement functions.”

The way he described being an auxiliary officer was simple.

“Would you rather sit in a car by yourself or have someone with you with a gun?”

His passenger seat shifts are one night a week and can be up to eight hours. The number of hours Scott volunteers has not changed much, just his role.

COPs go where they are needed, with one driving and one monitoring the computer. They are trained to use radios and cellphones to alert officers of suspicious activity.

“[COPs] have just the same chance of coming across that random person as an officer does,” Torres said.

Officers hold briefing meetings about three times a day to determine which areas need to be patrolled, Ligon said.

Ligon said there isn’t a concrete way to measure how effective the COPs are, but he believes there are fewer burglaries in areas that are heavily patrolled.

The possibility of being seen, Ligon said, could stop crimes from happening.

Neighbors and COPs are usually the ones who see burglaries and other crimes in progress. The police come in after a crime has been reported, Ligon said.

“The citizens of Gainesville play a major role in reporting crime,” Ligon said.

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Florida Lawmakers Set Sights On Industrial Hemp Production

By on April 15th, 2015 | Last updated: April 15, 2015 at 3:08 pm
Hemp has a wide variety of commercial uses, including food, cosmetics, paper and bio-fuel. It can be grown organically year-round, and has few weed or insect enemies. Garrett Mastronardi / WUFT News

Hemp has a wide variety of commercial uses, including food, cosmetics, paper and bio-fuel. It can be grown organically year-round and has few weed or insect enemies. Garrett Mastronardi / WUFT News

The Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries voted Wednesday April 8 to recommend legislation that would authorize statewide farming, production and sale of industrial hemp. The vote was 8 to 4.

“This is not a bill to legalize marijuana in the state of Florida,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), its primary sponsor. “This is an industrial hemp bill.”

The term “industrial hemp” encompasses strains of the plant Cannabis sativa L. that have been bred specifically for industrial purposes, said Michael Krehl, founder of the Florida Hemp Alliance.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the global market for hemp is estimated to consist of more than 25,000 different products, including paper, textiles, nutrition and biofuel.

Hemp’s genetics differ from other strains of cannabis that are higher in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in other strains that produces the psychotropic drug effects.

Those strains typically have a THC content of 5 to 10 percent, according to a report released by Purdue University. This is about 17 to 35 times the amount found in industrial hemp, which contains no more than 0.3 percent THC.

Krehl said hemp is also high in cannabidiols (CBDs), which are THC antagonists that cancel out the chemical’s effects. This means smoking or otherwise ingesting any amount of hemp could not intoxicate someone.

If passed into law, the Hemp Industry Development Act (SB 902) would take effect July 1.

The measure received unanimous approval from the agriculture and criminal justice committees. It will next be heard by the appropriations committee.

The bill is designed to allow farmers to replenish their soils with a crop that could bring more money into the state’s economy, Clemens said.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) has filed a companion bill (HB 363) to SB 902 in the Florida House of Representatives. It has been assigned to four committees but has not yet gone to a hearing.

If legalized, industrial hemp could potentially become a cash crop for farmers whose current crops are suffering from Huanglongbing (HLB), better known as citrus greening.

A UF IFAS report said the disease has caused the loss of millions of trees. Citrus greening is caused by a bacterium scientists believe spreads primarily through salivary secretions of a bug known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid.

Hemp cultivators and distributors would be required to obtain a license from state regulators, who would conduct regular inspections to ensure that the THC content of the crops is no higher than 0.3 percent.

Licensees would also be subject to an annual registration fee of up to $100.

Krehl, who has been working closely with Clemens’ office on the bill, said research shows a 21 percent growth in the US hemp industry in 2014. Total sales in 2014 amounted to about $620 million. 

According to the Congressional Resource Service, the single largest source of U.S. imports of hemp-based foods is Canada. The U.S. accounts for about 90 percent of Canadian international hemp sales.

“We’re importing hemp seed from Canada that is sold right here in Tallahassee,” said Sen. Greg Evers, the criminal justice committee’s chair. “We need hemp production in the state of Florida.”

Krehl said hemp farmers in Canada currently profit about $800 per acre. He said this is three times the value of an acre of canola, which is one of Canada’s most lucrative field crops.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 22 states have passed hemp-legalization laws. Of these, 13 allow commercial production and seven permit state-approved cultivation.

“It’s clean; it’s green; it’s a job-producing machine,” Krehl said. “It’s what we need in our state.”

The Agricultural Act of 2014, signed into federal law by President Barack Obama, included a provision that allows state agriculture departments and universities to grow hemp for agricultural or research purposes where hemp farming is legal under state law.

But federal law still prohibits banks or other financial institutions from accepting money from hemp sales, so taxing it is difficult.

Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is not involved in the issues or economics surrounding the potential legalization of the crop.

According to the Florida Department of Revenue, taxpayers would not pay hemp taxes electronically. It is also unclear whether the state would be violating federal law by accepting taxes in the form of cash.

This could change with the passing of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which was introduced to Congress in January. This bill would eliminate all federal restrictions on hemp cultivation and remove it from the list of Schedule I controlled substances.

Currently, all parts of the cannabis plant are illegal under the law except for the its fibers and sterilized seeds.

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