Local black farmer dies pending promised marijuana license worth millions

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Posted January 3, 2023 | By Andy Filmore, Special to the Gazette
  • Algene Burton-Hopkins, 83, the widow of Moton Hopkins Sr., poses for a photo with some of the items from her late husband's funeral at her sister's home on Southeast 31st Street in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Moton Hopkins Sr. passed away on April 11, 2022 and had qualified for a medical marijuana grower's license prior to his death. The family is now legally pursuing getting the license through the Florida Department of Health. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
  • Moton Hopkins Sr. is shown in family photos. Hopkins passed away on April 11, 2022 and had qualified for a medical marijuana grower's license prior to his death. The family is now legally pursuing getting the license through the Florida Department of Health. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
  • Moton Hopkins Sr. is shown in a family photo with his wife, Algene. Hopkins passed away on April 11, 2022 and had qualified for a medical marijuana grower's license prior to his death. The family is now legally pursuing getting the license through the Florida Department of Health. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
  • Moton Hopkins Sr. is shown in family photos. Hopkins passed away on April 11, 2022 and had qualified for a medical marijuana grower's license prior to his death. The family is now legally pursuing getting the license through the Florida Department of Health. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

Ocala farmer Moton Hopkins Sr.’s lifelong struggle for a fair shake from the government is continuing, even after his death.

Hopkins, who died April 11, 2022 at age 84, was among a dozen Black farmers seeking a state Medical Marijuana Treatment Center license set aside as part of a settlement in a class action suit from the 1990s that claimed the U.S. Department of Agriculture systematically discriminated against them when they applied for loans.

Hopkins’ heirs now are locked in a new fight on his behalf, this time with the Florida Department of Health, which is overseeing the granting of the licenses. The family hopes to honor their patriarch’s legacy by securing a license in what Forbes.com has called a $1 billion industry in Florida. A license can reportedly fetch upward of $50 million.

The DOH initially scored the application by Hopkins and his company, Hatchett Creek Farms LLC, as the best choice for the lucrative license. But in September, months after Hopkins died and while his application was still being processed, the DOH stated that Hopkins’ application was tied to him personally and his legal interest in it died when he did.

The family’s attorney, Tom Sosnowski of the law firm Boies, Schiller, Flexner LLP,  insists that nowhere in the state rules is this determination spelled out, adding that the DOH has dragged its feet for years in granting the license. Had the agency moved in a timely manner, he said, Hopkins might have been alive when the license was granted.

The DOH intends to grant the license to someone else. A News Service of Florida article identified Terry Donnell Gwinn and Gwinn Brothers Medicinals of Suwanee County as the DOH’s choices. The article notes 11 other applicants sought the license and all are challenging the DOH’s decision.

The DOH and USDA communications offices have not responded to requests for comment from the Gazette.

Sosnowski, who is representing the Hopkins estate and Hatchett Creek Farms, told the Gazette there are ample grounds for appealing the DOH decision. Foremost among them is that the Hopkins family suffered from the USDA discriminatory practices cited in the case from 1999 to 2008, and “the class action settlement was intended to benefit class action members and their heirs.’’

A lifetime of hard work

Hopkins, a native of Kendrick in Marion County, had only an eighth-grade education but his hard work for decades built a farming operation on 500 acres near County Road 484 in southwest Marion County where he grew crops including watermelon, peanut and okra. At various points, he worked as a roofer and mechanic to support his family.

Hopkins’ wife of 57 years, Algene, described her husband as hard working and friendly, adding that “he never met a stranger.” When it came to friends, the color of their skin didn’t matter, and he would help anybody, she said.

She said there was “prejudice back then,” but her husband endured the treatment to support his family.

“He was the joy of my life,’’ Mrs. Hopkins said. “When God made him, he threw away the mold.”

In the late 1960s, the Hopkins family opened the Broadway Cafe and operated the eatery until about two years ago when it was closed due to the pandemic. Mrs. Hopkins, known as “Miss Gene” to her customers, served popular Southern dishes like chitlins.

In a 1999 document supporting his discrimination claim, Hopkins wrote, “If it weren’t for my wife’s income, I would have had no money for living expenses for myself and my family.”

Moton Hopkins Jr., a resident of San Antonio, Texas, is a 27-year Air Force veteran. He recalled his family’s hard work in operating the farm and how his parents served as “caregivers” and took food from the cafe into the community to help those in need.

“(The MMTC license) is part of my father’s legacy,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Black farmers face “the last plantation’’

Hopkins’ first clash with government bureaucracy began decades ago. He was among a number of Black farmers in a class action suit originally titled Pigford vs. Glickman, which claimed unfair lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture toward people of color from 1981 to 1997.

In a claim form for a later part of the suit, known as Black Farmers Litigation, Hopkins stated he applied for a $150,000 farm operating loan in 1981 at the Marion County office of the USDA and was approved for $80,000.

“As a stipulation of the loan, (Hopkins) was required to go back into the USDA for approval and disbursement of the funds,” his claim form states. A loan was “approved by the committee,” but the local USDA official “refused to approve it because (the USDA official said) he would lose his job.”

“This loan was never disbursed. Claimant needed the money to buy seeds, fuel and fertilizer,” Hopkins’ form states.

In a 1999 narrative for the class action filing, Hopkins provided more details of his treatment by the USDA.

“Every time I had to go to the county (USDA) office to get a check, I lost time I should’ve spent in the field. I plant by the sign (moon phase) and when I missed planting because the county office did not disburse my funds, I had to wait two to three weeks before I could plant,” the narrative reads.

Hopkins wrote this snag with the loan forced him to get commercial loans at a higher rate. He signed over his “entire crop” to repay FHA and commercial loans because of the delays. In 1982, he could not obtain a loan and his collateral–tractors, irrigation system and eventually his home–went into foreclosure, the narrative states.

“I was outraged,” Hopkins wrote. “I had to drop the leases on all the land I farmed.”

In a similar local case, Narvella Haynes of Ocala recalled seeing her father, Joseph Haynes, going to the USDA to make payments on a farm loan with “wads of cash, but he never got a receipt.”

She shared a March 22, 1999 article from the “St. Petersburg Times” concerning the resolution of the suit against the USDA. The article states the government “admits what Black farmers have long said: The Department of Agriculture, widely described as the last plantation, systematically discriminated against Black farmers for decades.”

Hopkins eventually received a $50,000 after-tax settlement on the Black Farmers Litigation claim. That amount, however, did not come close to making Hopkins whole, according to Sosnowski.

“(Moton Hopkins Sr.’s) total compensation from…Black Farmers Litigation was far below the damages Moton and his family suffered from the discrimination and resulting loss of the farm,” Sosnowski wrote in an email.

He also raised a key point.

“(The) Black Farmers Litigation settlement recognized that the discrimination affected not just the Black farmers but also their heirs,’’ he noted.

This legal determination of lineal connection is at the core of the current dispute the Hopkins family is engaged in with Florida.

For Black farmers, a chance at a golden ticket

In 2016, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana to be grown and dispensed. The following year, the state Legislature determined that a qualified class member of either the Pigford or Black Farmers Litigation cases would be granted a license to operate a Medical Marijuana Treatment Center.

Florida lawmakers in 2018 told the DOH the license should be issued “as soon as practicable.’’ However, it wasn’t until December 2021 that the department said it would accept applications in March 2022.

Hopkins and Hatchett Creek Farms (Hopkins owned 51% of the company), applied received the highest score, according to Sosnowski. “That means the (DOH) determined that Hatchett Creek Farms was the business that was in the best position among all the applicants to best serve the citizens of Florida and the health and safety goals required for a medical marijuana treatment center,” he told The News Service of Florida.

But when Hopkins died in April, everything changed.

The DOH stated on Sept. 20, “Any interest Mr. Hopkins had in the MMTC application ceased upon Mr. Hopkins’ death, as the licensure qualifications are personal to Mr. Hopkins and do not flow to third parties.”

In a petition to the DOH, the Hopkins family argues the license belongs to the entity affiliated with the application.

“The department’s statement in its denial letter that ‘licensure qualifications’ are ‘personal to’ a Pigford/BFL class member is an unadopted rule that was created ad-hoc by the department and used for the first time in its denial letter,” the petition said. “Once the application is submitted, the ‘applicant’ conflates to include the entity for scoring and licensing purposes, as the applicant must satisfy certain licensing requirements that only an entity can satisfy, including the ability to ‘operate a food establishment,’ among others.”

The petition also blames the DOH for the years-long delay in issuing the Black farmer license. “If the department had complied with its statutory mandate, Moton Hopkins would not have died while his application was pending,” the petition states.

“Denial of the application simply because Mr. Hopkins … died during an interim period after his application was successfully submitted yet before the license award was announced is illogical and contrary to the purpose and goals of the federal legislation,” according to the petition.

The DOH has since announced it will grant the license to Gwinn. Jim McKee, an attorney who represents Gwinn, told The News Service of Florida that the law for the application “does not permit the license to be awarded to a trust or any other person or entity that is not a Pigford class member.”

In what Sosnowski called a further injustice, “The Hopkins family and Hatchett Creek Farms will not be refunded the $146,000 application fee if the license is not granted.’’