Holly Bell named Florida's director of cannabis

Holly Bell, at podium, was named Wednesday as Florida’s director of cannabis by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, at right. Fried created the position shortly after her election in November and hopes having someone focusing on that industry will move forward work to provide better access to medical marijuana as well as open an industrial hemp cultivation industry in Florida.

SEBRING — Holly Bell, a former banker, will serve as Florida’s first director of cannabis, it was officially announced Wednesday by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Fried, a Democrat elected in November, campaigned on the promise of increasing public access to medical marijuana. She created the position shortly after taking over the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services last month.

Bell’s resume states she has a degree in agricultural economic from Purdue University and has worked as a cannabis consultant in other states, including Tennessee’s industrial hemp program. The Nashville consultant and banker most recently worked in Denver, writing educational content for the Safe Harbor Program, a financial services company that serves as a liaison between the cannabis businesses and Colorado banks.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Fried said Bell will work with farmers and scientists to develop Florida’s hemp industry following the passage of a federal farm bill that has legalized hemp, a cannabis plant that does not contain the addictive euphoria-inducing THC chemical.

Also, Bell will monitor other state agencies actions regarding medical marijuana.

“The stakes are really high here in our state to get this right,” Fried said.

Bell said she helped Tennessee farmers embrace hemp as an alternative to tobacco, soybeans, cattle and cotton, crops she said were similar to those grown in Florida.

“Hemp is a multi billion-dollar opportunity and potential for the state of Florida and the agriculture community as an alternative crop,” Bell said at Wednesday’s news conference. “After 80 years of stalled progress, we can finally begin to put cannabis to work for farmers, consumers and patients here in Florida.”

Fried also spoke of that delay in regard to the state’s slow implementation of a constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2016, to legalize marijuana for medical use. She said insurance companies do not cover cannabis treatment, cities have prohibited marijuana operators from opening stores and not enough operators have been licensed to meet patient demand.

Another problem is that with low supply, Fried said, costs remain high.

She talked of removing the vertical integration system that allows single companies to be in control of all aspects of the business.

Likewise, there have been problems with confusion for law enforcement and prosecutors over products advertised as containing non-euphoric cannabidiol, or CBD, which have been untested in Florida.

“This is a consumer issue,” Fried said at the press conference. “It is our job to make sure that the citizens of our state who are buying CBD know what is in it. You don’t have that right now.”

When about her first task as the agriculture department’s cannabis chief, Bell paused before saying, “That’s a good question. I’ve got to do a lot of research and get to know the team and work with the commissioner and put an outline for her vision.

“Then, we’ll be implementing that,” Bell said.

Among the positive reviews provided by Florida’s Agriculture Department, Joe Kirkpatrick, president of the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, said farmers there were suffering, looking for an alternative, and thought hemp would be “an incredible opportunity to revitalize the agriculture industry, and be an overall economic boon to our state.”

Florida’s medical marijuana industry is projected to have a $1.6 billion economic impact and create more jobs than manufacturing in Florida by 2020, according to Forbes magazine in February 2017. The article states jobs — more than 250,000 of them — would likely be what keeps the Trump administration from cracking down on cannabis companies.

It’s more than the expected jobs from manufacturing, utilities or even government jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, given that by 2024 manufacturing jobs may decline by 814,000, utilities will lose 47,000 jobs and government jobs will decline by 383,000. Meanwhile, data suggests the fastest-growing industries are all healthcare related.

The legal cannabis market was worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 17 percent, Forbes reports.

Medical marijuana sales are projected to grow from $4.7 billion in 2016 to $13.3 billion in 2020, while adult recreational sales — where such have been legalized — are estimated to jump from $2.6 billion in 2016 to $11.2 billion by 2020.

Studies have shown that Florida has the potential to become the biggest medical marijuana market in the nation by 2021. Research also shows that medical marijuana laws may drop the opioid overdose mortality rate by 25 percent.

Passage of the Farm Bill also allows cultivation of industrial hemp, with billions in potential for Florida as an alternative crop.

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