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Meet Holly Bell, Florida’s Mother Of Marijuana

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Holly Bell has recently been named the first-ever cannabis director of Florida. (Gabriella Paul/Fresh Take Florida)

One day six years ago, Holly Bell was rummaging through her daughter’s Volkswagen when she stumbled upon an identification card. It was issued from a medical marijuana registry in Los Angeles, California. She stared at Hilary’s face on the card, fascinated but not surprised.

“I mean I grew up in an era where everybody smoked pot. It was no big deal,” Bell says.

She can laugh about it now but back then, she had a slew of questions for her daughter.

In her answers, Hilary described how medical marijuana relaxed her muscles and soothed her anxiety – both crippling symptoms of a congenital disease; she was born 10 weeks premature and with mild cerebral palsy.

Today, Hilary Bell, 28, works as a film writer in Nashville, where medical marijuana is still illegal. And Bell has recently been named the first-ever cannabis director of Florida, where the regulation and use of cannabis remains a political hot topic.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried named Bell to the new position in an effort to increase Floridians’ access to cannabis. Bell plans to focus on medical marijuana as well as supervising a statewide industrial hemp industry.

In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to legalize smokable medical marijuana. He will now consider the legislation to legalize an industrial hemp program in Florida, which passed the House on Wednesday. Its last hurdle, before it reaches the governor’s desk, will be to pass a Senate vote today.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R – Beverly Hills, the original sponsor of the House bill, commended lawmakers for their nearly unanimous support during session.

Hemp is a strand of the Cannabis Sativa L. plant that can be processed to make everything from beauty products to biofuel. Hemp has the potential to change the landscape of Florida agriculture, which could prove to be a big boom for Panhandle farmers paralyzed in the aftermath of devastating Hurricane Michael last October. Massullo reminded lawmakers that the new industry could bring billions of dollars to the state.

Fried has grand ideas for marijuana in the state, among them the industrial hemp program. That kept Bell, a newbie to Florida, busy during the legislative session consulting key players within the industry: growers, bankers, patients and politicians. She now has an entire industry to oversee.

But Bell hasn’t always been an industry expert, although she grew up surrounded by agriculture. She spent her childhood on an Indiana farm and graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s in agriculture economics. That knowledge went largely unused until now — she spent decades of her career working in the world of banking and finance.

But that instance in her daughter’s Volkswagen was enlightening. It sparked the curiosity that would – years later — land her the role of Florida’s top pot executive.

Some Floridians were taken aback by Fried’s choice.

Bell, after all, had never directly worked within the cannabis industry. She wasn’t a Floridian and had never worked in the public sector. Her most extensive experience was as a consultant for hemp and cannabis companies in overcoming banking regulation hurdles.

But Bell understands the sometimes wary relationship banks have with such companies and her knowledge has already proved to be integral to pilot projects. At first, an unpopular choice among Florida’s tight-knit cannabis community of lobbyists and lawmakers, Bell has come to earn their respect.

She draws from the lessons she’s learned from her own daughter, her role model.

Tears well behind Bell’s turquoise-rimmed glasses; it’s difficult to talk about the first two years of Hilary’s life. Her daughter suffered a stroke as she was born and would have to live with mild cerebral palsy. That meant a series of corrective surgeries at a young age and a lifetime of pain.

Hilary now uses topical cannabis oil to manage the chronic pain.

“Some people are real understanding, and then there are a lot of people that just aren’t,” Bell says.

But, she recognizes that it’s often a lack of personal experience or education that’s really to blame.

This is the same approach she employs in her new role as cannabis director.

She realizes that marijuana remains an emotionally charged issue. It’s challenging to be czar over something that has been vilified for so long. The answer: Call people to the table and encourage them to hear, not just listen.

“You have two ears and one mouth. I think you should use them proportionally,” she says, jokingly.

Bell’s laugh bubbles, and dies just as quickly. Her hands fold into themselves on her office desk.

Bell thinks of her emotional intelligence to be as vital to her success as anything else.

Those who have known Bell a long time say she’s grounded in her Midwestern roots.

One of them is Cindy Deavel, who grew up in Bell’s hometown of Warsaw, Indiana, but did not meet Bell until the two women ended up in Italy as young military wives.

They were new mothers in a new country enduring the stresses of deployment. Their friendship ran deep like the waters of the Mediterranean. They connected through their heartland roots.

“We were raised that a two-week vacation was aspirational,” Deavel says.

Bell, she says, brings these core values to her new job.

In the office Bell now occupies at the Capitol, a neat stack of business cards grows daily on her otherwise bare desk. The décor is equally minimal save a framed photograph of a teenage Holly in a wide-brimmed cowgirl hat. She’d been freshly crowned Indiana’s “Cow Queen” and wore a 60-inch leather sash inscribed with the official title, “Miss Charolais,” after the white, beef cattle she used to show at county and state fairs.

After college, she married, divorced and then married again just a few years ago, this time to seasoned radio host Todd “Dallas” Rogers with whom she co-founded Nashville Access, an international country show. He did the music. She handled the money.

Over the years, she has honed her financial skills and brought her entrepreneurial spirit to a dozen business ventures, spanning entertainment to cannabis industries.

Josh Camp, founder and CEO of LabCanna Biosciences, says he owes his success to Bell. A few years ago, banks did not consider his business legal. Bell forged solutions for Camp – not as a client, but as a friend. She was then the chief financial officer of a media network and she did cannabis work all on her own accord, he says. And often, underground. Today, Camp’s company is Tennessee’s leading CBD product and industrial-hemp manufacturer.

She personally consulted Nashville’s regional bank managers to dissolve their biggest mistake: lumping industrial hemp under the same regulatory umbrella as related but illegal substances like medical and recreational marijuana.

She eventually built a credible reputation and, by popular demand, launched her own consulting firm for the industry.

“Florida’s a challenging state, and it’s going to take someone like Holly to bring things together,” Camp says.

It’s the not the role family and friends might have expected Bell to assume. But, in the same breath – they admit it’s one that makes total sense.

And Bell has certainly stepped up for the challenge. The former Cow Queen, has now hung up her cowgirl hat to reign instead as Florida’s mother of marijuana.

About Gabriella Paul

Gabriella Paul is a reporter for WUFT. She can be reached at gabbympaul@ufl.edu.

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