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Four Nurseries Claim UF Ties In Medical Marijuana Applications

Medical Marijuana
With the rapidly approaching deadline to submit an application to begin growing pot, Florida nurseries are caught in legal battles with competing applicants who claim the process was unfair.

Four of the 24 nurseries that were vying for licenses to grow medical marijuana in Florida stated connections to the University of Florida in the application process.

The university says this is not possible, however, and is banned under current federal law.

In thousands of pages of applications, score sheets, petitions, lawsuits and other official documents stemming from the certification process, nurseries across the state have made claims and counterclaims. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Dewar Nurseries, DeLeon's Bromeliads, Knox Nursery Inc. and Chestnut Hill Tree Farm all mentioned UF in their applications to the Florida Department of Health.
  • Two of these nurseries were awarded licenses by the state: Knox for the central region and Chestnut Hill for the northeast.
  • UF disputes any claim it is involved.
  • More than a dozen petitions and lawsuits have been filed, challenging the state's decisions.

As of June 2014, licensed doctors may legally prescribe non-euphoric marijuana to epilepsy and cancer patients in Florida, though the drug is not accessible to patients until after growers begin producing in the state.

The process took longer than expected, but in November five growers were chosen by the health department to start cultivation in 2016.

'A team of scientists from the University of Florida'

During his Jan. 13 testimony to the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, Chestnut Hill's Robert Wallace suggested he was working with UF as one of the state's five approved locations.

Wallace told the committee: "We have put together a team of scientists both from the University of Florida and from the pharmaceutical industry, and we have developed some proprietary technology.”

EarlierGrower Invokes UF Partnership in Testimony, But University Says No to Pot

Wallace listed current UF faculty member Dr. Donn Dennis as well as Dr. Mark Rice on Chestnut Hill's application, under the "Advisors engaged for services post-licensing" section. But UF officials report that Dennis is not working with the grower, and Rice does not work for the University any longer.

Rice was listed as an associate professor of anesthesiology at UF on the application in July 2015, but his employment ended with UF in March 2015, according to Rossana Passaniti, spokeswoman for UF Health. Rice did not file any paperwork with UF's Conflict of Interest Program.

Dennis is a professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at UF’s College of Medicine.

Under federal law, spokespeople say, UF cannot grow or conduct research on marijuana, except under limited circumstances.

Additionally, under the UF Conflict of Interest Program, Dennis first needed official approval from Dr. Timothy Morey, head of the department of anesthesiology, to move forward in the process to serve on Chestnut Hill’s board. 

Included in Chestnut Hill’s application is an email from Dennis to Susan Baumgartner, chief operating officer, on July 7, in which Dennis expressed interest in seeking the necessary approval to join the nursery’s advisory board, pending approval from his supervisors.

However, Morey wrote in an email to WUFT News that Dennis decided not to get involved with Chestnut Hill, and no paperwork was filed.

“Ultimately Dr. Donn Dennis decided not to pursue this,” Morey wrote.

Passaniti said there is no way of knowing if, or when, Dennis informed Chestnut Hill of his decision. Dennis forwarded all media inquiries to the communication office at UF Health.

When contacted by WUFT News, Wallace said that Dennis’ absence from the team would not harm the nursery’s progress.

“Dr. Donn Dennis is but one of many potential, informal advisors to Chestnut Hill. He is not part of the central management team. He expressed his desire to be a part of the advisory team and Chestnut Hill would like to have him on board,” Wallace wrote in an email. “However, if he is unable to get the necessary UF approvals then that will have absolutely no impact on our ability to perform under the DOH approval.”

Working with a Tallahasee communications firm, Bascom Communications and Consulting LLC., Wallace wrote:

“We stand by our application and its accuracy and transparency. If my comment in the committee was misunderstood, that was not intentional. We do not have an official partnership with the University of Florida, and we never implied that we did, I simply mentioned that of the many talented and distinguished scientists that have expressed an interest in what we are doing."

Passaniti reinforced that no UF or UF Health Shands employees are  working with Wallace.

“We’re not aware of any current or former UF researchers or scientists, or of current or former UF Health Shands employees either collaborating or working independently with Mr. Wallace or serving on his team of advisors,” she wrote in several emails in the last few weeks.

During his testimony to the senate committee, Wallace also said he would donate up to 3 percent of gross proceeds to UF for research on cannabis as a medicine.

He previously stated in his application he was going to donate 2.5 percent to a list of universities that included UF. Asked about the disparity, Wallace said:

“The amount in the application is correct – 2.5 percent. I simply misspoke in committee, again, not intentionally," Wallace wrote.

UF cannot accept proceeds from any independent marijuana grower for research on marijuana under the current Controlled Substances Act, according to Janine Sikes, UF spokeswoman.

A test garden at IFAS

Wallace wasn’t the only grower who mentioned a connection to UF. In its application, Knox Nursery, which received a license, mentioned the possibility of developing management programs for "Good Agricultural Practices" in conjunction with UF's IFAS Extension Program.

Unlike Wallace, Bruce Knox, president of Knox Nursery in Winter Garden, made no mention of UF during his Jan. 13 testimony to the senate committee. Attempts to contact Knox Nursery went unanswered. 

Dewar Nurseries in Apopka also cited a connection to UF. Dewar was not awarded a state license.

Dewar wrote in its application, "To introduce new varieties, we have a test garden at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) where we are able to test 200 different plant varieties at any given time.”

Owner Bill Dewar said the test garden in question is in Apopka, and is for the nursery's rose bud breeding — not for marijuana plants.
Robert Gilbert, chair of UF IFAS Agronomy Department, said the university cannot do research on marijuana plants per federal funding guidelines.

"UF administration has made it very clear that we can not perform research on marijuana due to concern on its impact on our federal grants," Gilbert wrote in an email. "I am not aware of any faculty or location that would have marijuana test plots."

DeLeon’s Bromeliads, another applicant from the central region, expressed an interest in working with a UF faculty member on its application.

The nursery stated it had already spoken with Dr. Paul Carney, a UF College of Medicine professor in pediatric neurology who is heading a research initiative to test cannabis oils on patients with epilepsy, about "possible synergies."

UF received a $1 million dollar grant from the state health department for the initiative in May.

DeLeon did not list any research on marijuana plants in relation to the university, and the nursery did not answer emails and phone calls from WUFT News.

'Certainly raises some questions'

Jeffrey Sharkey, the executive director of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, which advocates for the industry, said any testimony in front of a senate committee about connections to a university that were not verified could call into question other aspects of an application.

If, "...They had a relationship and then it was discounted directly by the university – that’s a fairly strong statement from the university," Sharkey said. "I’m not saying there is, I’m just saying that certainly raises some questions.”
State Sen. Rob Bradley, the Republican state senator from District 7 covering parts of Alachua, Bradford and Clay counties and chair of the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, said he declined to comment about any implied relationships between UF and the nurseries.  

“He is not going to weigh in on this issue,” said Jason Welty, his legislative assistant.

Legal challenges

Some of the nurseries that were not awarded a license  took issue with the process the state used to award the licenses.

Newly-licensed Chestnut Hill  filed a lawsuit Jan. 27 in Tallahassee to prevent any further delay stemming from rulings on the appeals cases.

More than a dozen petitions and lawsuits have been filed challenging the Department of Health’s decision.

That process was further complicated Tuesday when three nurseries not granted a license filed a lawsuit to put the chosen nurseries' growing processes on hold. San Felasco Nurseries Inc., 3 Boys Farm Company and McCrory's Sunny Hill Nursery, LLC, filed suit against the health department, Chestnut Hill, Knox and Alpha nurseries to prevent them from growing any marijuana until the legal challenges have been resolved.

On Wednesday, Loop's Nursery filed a lawsuit against Chestnut Hill on the grounds that Chestnut Hill received a license because of alleged connections to UF that were not verified.  Legal counsel for Loop's, which is located in Alachua County, would not comment.

Sharkey said it could take three to four months before there is a ruling in the courts.

Read Also: Grower Invokes UF Partnership In Testimony, But University Says No To Pot

Caitie is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.