Medical marijuana dispensary ban imposed while City of Sarasota works on amending Zoning Code

Staff expected to report back to City Commission during the first September board meeting

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Agreeing with the city attorney that the Legislature figuratively had tied their hands, the Sarasota city commissioners this week unanimously approved a two-month ban on medical marijuana dispensaries within the city limits.

During that period, staff will research options for amending the city’s Zoning Code regulations applicable to pharmacies, because the new state law legalizing use of medical marijuana says dispensaries must be allowed in all the zoning districts where pharmacies are allowed. The board also voted unanimously on July 3 to direct staff’s efforts relative to proposing city Zoning Code changes.

Staff indicated that it should be able to report back to the commission by the first meeting in September.

The commissioners’ approximately two hours this week focused on medical marijuana included comments from 18 members of the public who implored them to allow dispensaries in the city as soon as possible. One of the speakers, Deb Filion, told the board she is 65 years old and has been diagnosed with five different types of arthritis. “My life is terrible,” she said. “Opiates have been my drug, not by choice. My doctors have over-prescribed, and I’m hanging by my teeth now, folks.”

Her doctor, she added, had recommended she use medical marijuana. “And I sound angry,” Filion said. “It’s because I am. … Please help.”

In October 2016, the City Commission approved a nine-month moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in the city limits. City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out in a June 15 memo to the board that the goal of that action was to allow City staff sufficient time to investigate the impacts of medical marijuana dispensing facilities; “to determine what medical marijuana treatment center functions would be best suited to particular [zoning districts]; and how best to formulate … regulations to appropriately govern the new land use now allowed under the Constitution of the State of Florida.”

During the November 2016 election, 71.3% of the state’s voters approved Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana for individuals with specific debilitating medical conditions, as determined by a licensed physician in the state. The Florida Department of Health is responsible for a registry of all patients who receive prescriptions for the drug and for issuing identification cards to them and to caregivers.

The new state law on medical marijuana use contains these stipulations. Image from ballotpedia.org

However, Fournier told the board on July 3, “You didn’t plan on what the Legislature was going to do, so this sort of tripped you up.”

As specified in the law Gov. Rick Scott signed on June 23, a local government has only two options in regard to dispensary locations, Fournier explained in the memo: ban them altogether or adopt an ordinance that allows them, but that ordinance cannot be more restrictive than the local government’s regulations governing the locations of pharmacies.

Because pharmacies are allowed throughout the downtown area, in the Commercial Tourist districts — such as St. Armands Circle — and in the North (Tamiami) Trail and Commercial Neighborhood districts, for example, Fournier advised in the memo that he was “constrained to recommend that the City Commission exercise its statutory option to adopt an ordinance to ban medical marijuana dispensing facilities in the City.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Hagen Brody on July 3, Fournier said that if the City Commission let its nine-month moratorium expire, the result “would be chaos if you didn’t have something in place, because you wouldn’t have any [zoning] district where [dispensaries would] be allowed, so I think you’d have people saying they would be allowed in every [zoning] district.”

Furthermore, Fournier indicated that extending the moratorium might open up the potential for litigation against the city. “I don’t think there’s really a valid basis [for an extension].”

Deb Filion. News Leader photo

“You could potentially have dispensaries up and down Main Street, dispensaries up and down Hillview [Street], in the neighborhoods where we’ve had neighbors who didn’t want to have a loading dock because it was going to add one car per hour to the neighborhood [streets],” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert pointed out. “I don’t think we have a choice about voting for the ban today.”

Alpert added that she voted for Amendment 2. “I wanted to be able to have [dispensaries] in the city.”

“I’m not against having a dispensary in the city,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said, noting, “The word ‘ban’ sounds awful, but we are in this legal corner.”

“At the end of the day,” Brody said, “the city attorney is looking out for the procedural safety of the city …” However, he continued, “The state voters have spoken on this,” including between 21,000 and 22,000 in the City of Sarasota, as members of the public pointed out that night. “It would be nice just to allow [the sale of medical marijuana] at CVS like any other drug a doctor is allowed to prescribe …”

Fournier also explained that because the current moratorium was due to expire July 17, staff would not have ample time to draft an ordinance to implement another one, hold the required public hearings on it and enact it before July 17. Therefore, he continued, he saw no option but to recommend the ban option offered by the Legislature. However, he stressed, the ban could be as short-lived as the commission wanted, while staff looked into options regarding how best to address the facets of the state law.

“We’d basically be changing our pharmacy zoning code,” Brody pointed out.

When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she was in favor of asking staff to come back within 60 days with a proposal for Zoning Code amendments, Ahearn-Koch asked whether staff could undertake the necessary work within 45 days.

“Sixty days would give us ample time,” City Manager Tom Barwin replied.

Capt. Corinne Stannish and Mike Harrell of the Sarasota Police Department address the commission on July 3. News Leader photo

In the meantime, Capt. Corrine Stannish of the Sarasota Police Department pointed out that people registered under Florida’s earlier law allowing compassionate use of cannabis already have been using a dispensary in Bradenton. In fact, she said, “patients have been getting [medical marijuana] delivered in the city of Sarasota for over a year now. So we feel confident [that while work proceeds on an amended zoning ordinance], we aren’t stopping patients from getting access.”

Stannish was referring to the Legislature’s 2014 approval of the Compassionate Care Cannabis Act, which allows for non-euphoric, low-THC medical marijuana to be dispensed to certain patients with terminal diagnoses.

Concerns and pleas

During his comments at the outset of the discussion, Fournier said he could only assume that the language in the new law providing for no more restrictive zoning for dispensaries than for pharmacies was to keep regulations for the dispensaries from being “overly burdensome.”

In response to a question posed by City Manager Barwin, Fournier also noted that because pharmacies are exempt from the city’s business tax, dispensaries will be, too.

Stannish and Mike Harrell, a civilian employee with the Sarasota Police Department who previously was a federal Drug Enforcement Agency agent, explained that their concerns about the locations of dispensaries center on public safety, because the medical marijuana business is a cash-only one. Robberies of patients and burglaries at dispensaries are potential problems, Stannish said.

Moreover, “We want to make sure we’re not seizing something that [people] are legally allowed to possess [in the city],” she pointed out.

Cathy Bryant makes her public comments on July 3. News Leader photo

Although access to the state registry is easy at the Police Department, Stannish said, officers on the street probably will not have the ability to check the registry for about a month. Patients will have cards, she noted, but if an officer questions the validity of a document, she said, the officer can call Dispatch to reach Harrell and seek confirmation that the person is registered.

A number of the 18 speakers that night joined Deb Filion in describing medical problems for which marijuana is far preferable to opiates. The first person to address the board was Cathy Bryant, who talked of the degenerative brain condition with which her daughter suffers. The child had six concussions in one day as a result of seizures, Bryant said. However, thanks to use of the “Charlotte’s Web” medical marijuana for children, Bryant continued, her daughter’s situation has improved considerably.

“I’m begging you to make it work,” she told the commissioners, referring to allowing for dispensaries in the city.

James Ray talked of how medical marijuana has proven to be “an effective treatment for PTSD,” and the latter has been cited as the cause of the high suicide rate among veterans.

“The City of Sarasota is known for compassion,” Fernando Vega told the board.

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