Keeping Current With Local Florida Officials and Legal Medical Marijuana

Keeping Current With Local Florida Officials and Legal Medical Marijuana

Keeping current with Florida’s medical marijuana program and its relationship with the many towns and counties of the state is challenging. One of the challenges is that there is no record being kept of towns’ decisions whether they will allow medical marijuana treatment centers or not.

State officials deciding that towns can either allow treatment centers just as they would pharmacies or outright ban them is frustrating to many officials because they feel it means that they have to let sales of medical cannabis run rampant. Banning is the only way for counties to ease into legal medical marijuana by seeing what happens elsewhere in the state where towns have permitted treatment centers. Many Florida residents will have to be patient for the convenience of medical marijuana and for the competition to bring prices to a fair level while counties go through this trial and error process.

Dozens of cities have approved or are considering temporary moratoriums on medical- marijuana dispensaries, but it’s unknown exactly how many local governments have acted on the issue, because nobody —- including state health officials —- is officially keeping track.

Marijuana operators’ search for retail space has bloomed after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November that legalized marijuana for a broad swath of patients with debilitating medical conditions.

The scramble for retail outlets is expected to intensify as the number of marijuana operators continues to increase, and as local governments seek ways to restrain the sales of cannabis in their communities, at least for now.

As another result of the legislation approved during the June special session, state health officials recently authorized five new medical marijuana operations, on top of the seven businesses already active in the state. Five more are supposed to come online in October.

Nearly 72 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment last fall, making it difficult for local officials to close the door completely on the sale of medical cannabis.

But while saying they respect the will of voters, many local officials also want the power to regulate the number of dispensaries, and where the businesses can be sited, something that’s essentially off the table in the new state law, which requires local governments to treat medical marijuana distribution centers in the same way pharmacies are handled.

Most cities and counties don’t have special regulations regarding pharmacies, but instead treat them like other retail, or “light commercial,” businesses.

While some communities contemplate new zoning rules for pharmacies, a move that also could curb the development of marijuana dispensaries, others are focused on the cannabis retail outlets.

For example, St. Augustine Beach commissioners last week approved a moratorium barring medical-marijuana dispensaries from opening in the waterfront community.

“I think the main reason was just wanting to see how the situation is going to shake out and what sort of problems might occur with the sales of this stuff. There was no particular anxiety over it, but I think it’s a fear of the unknown,” said Jim Wilson, a lawyer who represents the city. “We’re a small community, and we’d rather see how this works elsewhere before we connect into it. It may work out fine later on.”

But Sen. Rob Bradley, who has been a key player in the creation and passage of the state’s medical-marijuana laws the past three years, said the new regulations were meant to encourage competition in the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

“I would encourage our local partners to see the bigger picture here. We are bringing online several new licenses over the next year-and-a-half. It’s important for the long-term future of the medical marijuana industry that we have real competition among not only the incumbents but the new license holders,” Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and former prosecutor, said in a recent interview. “If local governments were allowed at this point in time to restrict in their communities the number of dispensaries to only one or two or three, that would provide an unacceptable advantage to the incumbents.”

Regarding local officials’ fears about what are disparagingly known as “pot shops,” Bradley said he thinks they may be uninformed.

“When I see some of the comments from local officials, I’m not sure that they’ve read the details of the law. We have strict limitations on advertising and signage, and all of these dispensaries are required to have a doctor’s office feel,” he said.

The new restrictions imposed by the Legislature, paired with a push by marijuana operators to open retail facilities, create “an awkward situation for a lot of cities,” said John Wayne Smith, a lobbyist who represents numerous cities and counties as well as the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

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