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Florida cannabis director: Hemp will be a billion-dollar industry for state

We sat down with the state's first-ever director of cannabis to talk making money off marijuana, whether she smokes and her personal link to medicinal pot.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In February, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried named Holly Bell as the state’s first-ever director of cannabis. WTSP went to Tallahassee for a one-on-one conversation with Bell ahead of the 2019 legislative session.

WTSP: How did you get the job?

Bell: “So, that’s interesting. I started consulting in this space years ago and met the commissioner through that and watched her run for office and loved what I saw. So I reached out to her to see what I could do to help, I was up in Tennessee, and helped her as much as I could and after she won I reached back out to see if there was anything else I could do, and when they said ‘Submit your resume if you’d like to work on her staff or on her group,' I did.”

WTSP: And so, here you are, you’ve been here I think you said three weeks? What’s the first three weeks been like?

Bell: “Busy. Intense. A learning curve but, a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot, met a lot of wonderful people, and have a good idea for the vision of what the commissioner wants for this role.

 “Since the Farm Bill was passed in the last week of December 2018, we now have an opportunity to do a state hemp program here in Florida and that’s what I’m working predominantly on, and then we also have an opportunity to assist the Department of Health with edibles because that falls under food safety.” 

WTSP: In terms of the hemp industry, tell me about your experience there in Tennessee and what you see moving forward here in Florida in terms of that.”

Bell: “Years ago I was approached to help some people in Tennessee because we passed a bill to be able to grow hemp in Tennessee, and in the last 24 months, 12 months, I got very involved in Tennessee and I helped growers, I helped put together people who were processing, manufacturing, building infrastructure and helping people with just some basic things like getting bank accounts, getting card processing, answering basic financial questions.”

WTSP: What is the potential for Florida in terms of hemp as an industrial crop?

Bell: “I think it’s quite enormous. If you look at the statistics on hemp, it closed the year on gross sales revenue around $900 million, is what I’ve seen. The predictions have it at 2020 at over $2 billion, that is a rapid growth and with the environment, with the agriculture resources we have here, the land the weather, the nurseries, hemp is a natural product to grow here and we have the farmers in place that can grow it. They are looking for substitute crops to replace things that they’re struggling with, that they can’t compete on: produce, the timber, the citrus. So, I do believe it will be a great alternative crop for those farmers.”

WTSP: What kind of timeline would it take to start industrial hemp production and get it going?

Bell: “I’m always an optimist, I would like it done yesterday, but let’s be realistic and what we are is: in the process of in-session here. We’ve got our House and our Senate that are going to entertain some bills, we need to wait and see what happens with that, they’re in session for 60 days, after that they will give us what they pass, and it will be our job to go out and implement that.”

WTSP: On the medicinal side, I understand that part of that is under the Department of Health, which falls under the executive branch, so what’s your role in terms of medicinal marijuana here in Florida?

Bell: “My role is to help the Department of Health any way we can and to make sure we’ve done our piece because edibles does fall under us in food safety and so we’ve done our rules, we’ve held rule meetings and we have those in front of the commissioner. Now, we will work to help implement those with the Department of Health.”

WTSP: What’s the vibe you get surrounding medicinal marijuana and, I’m sure you’re aware of the smoking ban and all the litigation that’s happened over the past couple years since the voters approved Amendment 2, what’s your take on that? 

Bell: “So, I was just at a medical marijuana conference in Orlando and sat on a panel with some other state legislators and the commissioner and the vibe I get, and what I’ve heard our governor say, is that the people voted, and they passed it. Now, it’s time to get it implemented and do the people’s will.”

WTSP: A lot of people have been very critical of Florida’s mandate that this industry be vertically integrated. Where do you fall on that?

Bell: “My job here is to implement the hemp program and help with the edibles. That is left to the commissioner and the governor and that’s really something they need to decide at their level.”

WTSP: But, based off your experience in the industry, would horizontal integration, how could that help things? Or hurt? I don’t know … 

Bell:  “I think that the commissioner is on record as saying that she would like to see more horizontal integration to open it up to others. As an economics major, I know that when you open things up it tends to change how the marketplace works and it can be a good thing.

WTSP: What challenges do you foresee for yourself moving forward as the state’s first cannabis director?

Bell: “That there’s so much to do and there’s so much opportunity and it is so large, you come in on any given day and think, ‘What do I work on today?’ And you have to be very thoughtful and mindful and stay on task and take it one step at a time, very methodically so that you can get it done, and get it done well. That’s the biggest challenge I think I face on any given day.”

WTSP: Certainly, you have the banking chops and the agricultural chops but, when it comes to regulating a controlled substance, where does your experience help you there?

Bell:  “Anytime you bank a controlled substance you learn the regulations, and believe me, when you can go to jail, possibly, because you are banking someone who is dealing with a controlled substance, you dive deep and understand the regulations in a lot of detail. I may not have worked in that industry, but I have studied them and understand them so that I could learn how to bank the industry.”

WTSP: Do you smoke weed?

Bell: “That’s the funny thing my friends all laugh about with me taking this job. I don’t … I’ve done a lot of research, watched a lot of videos, my sister is a doctor and we talk about it at length, I try to research as much as I can and read. I do have friends who use it and I’ve talked to them about that.

"Something I don’t talk about a lot is, I have a daughter and my daughter has mild cerebral palsy, and finding something that can help her and help her muscles relax has always been a challenge. And my first real exposure was her residing in California and getting a medical card, and then questioning her. So that's my first-hand experience: talking to my daughter about her lifelong disability and how it has helped her and what it has done for her."

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