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Where Will Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Go?

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 8:45 am

Florida has legalized medical marijuana. But one big question: Where will those dispensaries go? And how much control will local governments have to regulate medical marijuana?

WMFE’s Health Reporter Abe Aboraya spoke with “Intersection”{ host Matthew Peddie.

PEDDIE: Briefly, tell us what’s expected to happen next for implementation of Amendment 2 in Florida?

ABORAYA: So remember how Florida already has a limited medical marijuana program? Patients with cancer and seizures can get non-euphoric medical marijuana, the so-called Charlotte’s Web. And if two doctors agree that you’re terminally ill, you can get full-strength medical marijuana. Well starting January 3, doctors will be able to prescribe for those 10 new conditions under Amendment 2. Cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, for example.

PEDDIE: So Amendment 2 could be in effect much sooner than initially thought?

ABORAYA: Yes, but. There’s always a but. The Florida Legislature is expected to pass a law next session. They will start hammering out the details during committee meetings that start next month. There are deadlines, too: By June the Florida Department of Health needs to have adopted regulations, and by September patients need to be getting their marijuana cards. With advocates saying 450 to 500 thousand possible patients eligible … there’s going to be a lot of pressure to add more than the six growers currently licensed in Florida

PEDDIE: Are we going to see the same kind of delays we did with Charlotte’s Web?

ABORAYA: That is the big question. This will be the third time the legislature has looked at this. So the legislators are going to be much better versed on these issues and there won’t be as steep of a learning curve. Certainly Florida could use the existing infrastructure to get medical marijuana to patients quickly. They could certainly say the existing nurseries will be the medical marijuana supply until we reach a certain number of patients. I don’t think anyone wants to see the same kinds of delays we saw getting Charlotte’s Web up and running.

PEDDIE: Competition to get those coveted growing licenses was fierce. Do the growers who missed out see an opportunity here to get a license anyhow?

ABORAYA: I would certainly think so. You know, one of the companies I interviewed earlier this year was Sunny Hill Nursery. At the time, they were competing for a license and ultimately lost. But this company had already bought a building. They had grow lights installed. So when I asked them what would they do if they lost … they said well, if we lose out on this, there’s always Amendment 2. I think you’re going to see a lot of these companies come back out and argue that the existing nurseries won’t be able to handle the demand.

PEDDIE: So that’s one fight … but what about where these actual store fronts will go? Does Amendment 2 have language about that.

ABORAYA: It does not. Now, before everyone’s eyes glaze over thinking about zoning laws … let’s stop and do a hypothetical situation. Let’s say you’re a family of four from Kansas in Orlando for your vacation. You’re driving down I-Drive. In between the outlet malls and chain restaurants, you see a bright green flashing sign: Marijuana. Orlando and its tourism industry have spent millions of dollars marketing the city beautiful as the best destination in the world to bring your family for a wholesome vacation. So you can see why these different groups and cities and growers all have a stake in where the most visible portion of this industry will go: The dispensaries. And I should mention: At last check, Orange County has not gotten any applications to operate a dispensary, this is just the hypothetical situation.

PEDDIE: How have other states handled this when they legalized medical marijuana?

ABORAYA: Other states that have done medical marijuana amendments have limited proximities to schools, for example, or allowed local voters to opt out of medical marijuana. Advocates say you don’t want to enshrine zoning laws into Florida’s constitution. So the question now is who gets to write the rules on where nurseries and dispensaries go. The Florida Legislature? The Department of Health? Or the local governments.

PEDDIE: We’ve heard from those who were against medical marijuana talking about bringing this fight to the legislature. And they want local governments to be able to outright ban them.

ABORAYA: That’s correct. During a medical marijuana debate … John Morgan said local governments can regulate where they go. And Morgan has an interesting view on this. He thinks politics will take care of this. If your local city council allows a medical marijuana dispensary to open up next to a school … there will be political reactions to that. They won’t be your mayor for much longer.I asked John Morgan about this after a debate on medical marijuana — back in October. As you know, Morgan has been an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana and put a lot of his own money — 8 million to 10 million dollars into the campaign to legalize it.

Specifically, I asked if a city’s zoning was very restrictive against medical marijuana dispensaries … could a dispensary sue the city?

“It would be like a strip club operator saying look, strip clubs are allowed in Florida, and I want to put one next to a school, so I’m gonna sue you to do it,” Morgan said.

“But at the same time, there’s not a constitutional right in Florida to go to a strip club,” Aboraya asked.

“But the zoning is in the purview of the cities,” Morgan said. “It’s gonna happen. It may not happen in your city and it may not happen on that corner. And I don’t know of any lawsuit I’ve ever heard of where someone has sued a municipality to change their zoning laws.”

ABORAYA: And so the Drug Free Florida team is now saying we need to hold the legislature accountable to John Morgan’s promise: That local governments CAN regulate where these dispensaries go … and outright ban them.

PEDDIE: But if you’re a patient and you are prescribed medical marijuana and your city, your county, maybe your region of the state doesn’t have a dispensary … doesn’t that create a burden on patients?

ABORAYA: Yes and no. Advocates certainly worry that you could see large areas of the state that ban dispensaries outright. But the thing about marijuana is it’s very portable. It’s small, it’s light, it’s not a tremendous burden to drive it around. And indeed, many of the existing dispensaries in Florida can and do deliver marijuana to patients in other parts of the state. But that comes with a cost for patients. And keep in mind, while Florida now has a constitutional right to medical marijuana, insurance companies are not required to cover the drug according to the amendment.

PEDDIE: So what are cities doing now?

ABORAYA: I checked in with the Florida League of Cities. Casey Cook is their lobbyist keeping track of this.“I would estimate between 20 and 30 cities that have something on the books right now,” Cook said. “I’m seeing articles every day where cities are considering moratoriums or adopting moratoriums or, like Coral Gables, adopting a fairly comprehensive ordinance related to medical marijuana.”

ABORAYA: Now, if you crunch the numbers, according to the league of cities, 43 local governments have dealt with this in some way. Some have moratoriums on dispensaries. Places like Orlando, Apopka and Leesburg have these temporary bans to give them time to figure out what to do. But other cities have passed zoning measures, like Altamonte Springs, Maitland and Mount Dora. So we’re moving past the phase of just wait and see and actually getting some regulations in place.

PEDDIE: What are the big zoning concerns?

ABORAYA: So cities are looking at this a lot like cities looked at pill mills. They worry about high levels of traffic at dispensaries. People smoking marijuana in the parking lot. There are the questions about how big these dispensaries can be and what kind of signs they can have. There are questions about how close they are to schools and day cares and things like that. And they worry about crime. They worry that a legal medical marijuana dispensary might become a magnet for the illegal drug trade. And there are safety concerns too. Keep in mind, most banks will not actually deal with medical marijuana companies. And it’s not just that you can’t get a loan to start one. They don’t even want to handle the cash, the revenue from the business, because of fears they could run afoul of money laundering laws. So this has become a cash business … another safety concern.

PEDDIE: Let’s look at one city that passed zoning. Winter Park. What did they do?

ABORAYA: Winter Park limited dispensaries to a very specific zoning called limited industrial warehouse district. So it’s not an outright ban. Now what that means in practice: You have one strip along Solana Avenue behind the railroad tracks that qualify for a dispensary. So in practice it would be pretty difficult to be able to set up a dispensary in the city of Winter Park.

PEDDIE: So it’s allowed but very limited.

ABORAYA: Yes. But there’s the flip side of that. Some cities are looking at this with a different mindset: Economic development. Here’s Casey Cook with the League of Cities again.

“Some cities see the passage of am 2 as potentially economic development for the communities because these dispensaries bring with them jobs that can benefit their community,” Cook said. “And looking at this nationally, I think there have been some local governments that have seen a rebirth of downtown because of the marijuana industry. Others cities take a different approach as see the negatives.

PEDDIE: People in Florida have already started asking: What about recreational marijuana?

ABORAYA: Of course. And the irony is you already have cities like Orlando, like Volusia County, like Miami-Dade where possession of small amounts of pot get you a ticket instead of jail time. And we’ve seen this pattern in states where you start with medical marijuana and you end up with recreational marijuana down the road.

PEDDIE: John Morgan's had a starring role in getting medical marijuana legalized with the passage of Amendment 2 … and there’s a chance he could have a hand in the next stage as well, right.

ABORAYA: John Morgan did a press conference the day after the election. He said he thinks recreational marijuana will come to Florida, but that’s not his fight. But there were calls for Morgan to run for governor. And while Morgan says he needs time to figure out if he’s going to run … he did publish a sort of outline of what his platform would be. His platform is to decriminalize it on a statewide basis. And he wants to get people who are in jail strictly for possession to be released. So if Morgan does run, marijuana will be part of his platform.

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