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Florida's new medical marijuana czar is a lawyer and former Navy officer

Christopher Kimball steps into the post as the state’s medical marijuana industry could be poised to double in size and as challenges pile up over the decision to award a sought-after license to a Black farmer.

Overseeing nearly 500 medical marijuana retail sites and more than 750,000 patients, Florida’s new medical pot czar is an attorney who spent more than two decades in the U.S. Navy and served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Florida Department of Health officials on Tuesday confirmed that Christopher Phillip Kimball has been named director of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Kimball steps into the post as the state’s medical marijuana industry could be poised to double in size and as challenges pile up over the agency’s decision to award a sought-after medical marijuana license to a Black farmer.

Kimball replaces Chris Ferguson, who ran the office for the past three years. Ferguson “has transitioned into the role of statewide services administrator for county health systems and will continue to serve the public in this new role” at the Department of Health, agency spokeswoman Weesam Khoury said in a text.

Kimball comes to the medical marijuana office after serving as a “policy advisor” at the state Agency for Health Care Administration, she said.

Kimball left the Navy in May after serving as “agency counsel/general counsel” for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps since 2008, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before that, Kimball spent seven years as a Navy “surface warfare officer.”

Kimball listed his “professional passions” on the social media site as “helping clients solve their thorniest problems; serving my clients & teammates, and helping legal and administrative systems justly and efficiently serve their citizens.”

Kimball received a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and graduated from Albany Law School of Union University, his profile said.

“Chris Kimball is a dedicated and hard working officer and judge advocate. As the supervising professor in the law section at the U.S. Naval Academy, Chris spearheaded initiatives to reduce class sizes and add elective courses, including an elective on the law of armed conflict and the law of maritime operations. As a former surface warfare officer, Chris's initiative and drive personified the line officer community to both his colleagues and his students,” Chad Bayse, an attorney who served as a counselor to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and who worked with Kimball in the Navy, wrote in a LinkedIn recommendation.

Earlier this month, Kimball’s LinkedIn profile listed a stint as an assistant attorney general in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office from June through September, followed by three months as a “health care policy advisor” for the state.

But on Tuesday, those jobs had been scrubbed from his profile and a listing as “director, state of Florida Department of Health” from “November 2022---present” had been added.

Kimball’s predecessor, Ferguson, worked at the Department of Health before becoming head of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use in December 2019. His predecessor, Courtney Coppola, worked at the office after its inception in 2015.

Numerous medical marijuana industry insiders contacted by The News Service of Florida on Tuesday did not want to comment on Kimball’s appointment.

Kimball begins the job as the state’s marijuana industry, which has 22 licensed operators, is expected to grow exponentially.

Voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. A resulting 2017 law created a framework for the industry and required the Department of Health to grant new licenses as the number of authorized patients increases.

With more than 760,000 patients now authorized for medical marijuana, the state should have issued at least another 22 licenses to keep up — doubling the number of current operators. The current operators were part of an initial group of applicants after the Legislature in 2014 passed a measure that allowed a relatively limited number of patients to receive low-THC cannabis products.

For years, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration blamed a delay on granting more licenses to a challenge to the 2017 law filed by the Tampa-based company Florigrown. But the Florida Supreme Court upheld the law and finalized the litigation more than a year ago.

The delay in the rollout of new licenses sparked another lawsuit filed this month by Louis Del Favero Orchids, Inc. The company has long sought a license, but its other administrative and legal challenges over the past four years have fizzled.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health is facing a stack of challenges after selecting a Suwannee County man to receive a medical marijuana license earmarked in the 2017 law for a Black farmer.

Health officials began accepting applications for the Black farmer license in March and in September announced their intent to grant the license to Terry Donnell Gwinn. The 11 applicants who lost out on the license are challenging the decision.

Copyright 2022 Health News Florida

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.