City Commission approves medical marijuana dispensary/treatment center moratorium for nine months

Board awaiting decision on Amendment 2 and expected Florida Legislature guidelines if the ballot initiative passes in November

(From left) Capt. Corinne Standish, Lt. Randy Boyd and Assistant City Attorney John Shames address the City Commission on Oct. 3. News Leader photo
(From left) Capt. Corinne Standish, Lt. Randy Boyd and Assistant City Attorney John Shamsey address the City Commission on Oct. 3. News Leader photo

A shortening of the period from a year to nine months garnered unanimous Sarasota City Commission approval this week of a moratorium on the establishment and operation of medical marijuana dispensaries and treatment centers in the city.

On Oct. 3 — when the board held its first reading of the proposed ordinance — Commissioner Liz Alpert cast a “No” vote after seeking a friendly amendment to Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie’s motion calling for a nine-month moratorium. Alpert sought a reduction of the time frame to six months.

During the second reading of the ordinance — held during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 17 — City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that even with reducing the period from a year to nine months, “I think that should be a sufficient amount of time to do what staff needs to do.”

On Oct. 3, Assistant City Attorney John Shamsey and Capt. Corinne Stannish and Lt. Randy Boyd of the Sarasota Police Department explained that the department and the Office of the City Attorney just wanted to have enough time to research what other jurisdictions are doing before proposing restrictions on dispensaries under the city’s Zoning Code.

For example, Stannish said, the Police Department would not recommend such operations be located near schools or daycare centers.

“We’re not looking to outlaw legal marijuana use in any way,” Shamsey stressed.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

As they also pointed out during that discussion — and Fournier reaffirmed this week — the Florida Department of Health expects to take up to nine months to establish a process for patients to follow in obtaining marijuana for medical use if the proposed Amendment 2 to the Florida Constitution passes on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot.

Amendment 2 would allow individuals with specified medical ailments to use full tetrahydrocannabinol cannabis (THC) medical marijuana throughout the state.

If Amendment 2 passes, Boyd told the commissioners on Oct. 3, “we can put together commonsense rules on where we’re going to have those dispensaries.”

In 2014, the Legislature approved the Compassionate Care Cannabis Act, which allows for non-euphoric, low-THC medical marijuana to be dispensed to certain patients with terminal diagnoses, Fournier noted this week, adding that even if Amendment 2 fails, “we need to address the existing law that we have not addressed.”

His latest research showed that only 87 people have received cards from the Florida Department of Health that allow them to obtain the type of medical marijuana allowed under the 2014 law, he said. A person has to be found to be a “qualifying patient,” before such a card can be issued, he told the board.

Other tweaks and a look ahead

Along with shortening the moratorium period, another, smaller, change in the ordinance the commissioners approved this week allows city staff to accept applications for dispensaries. Fournier explained that it seemed “that would help us to find out what was out there,” even though none of those applications would be processed until after the moratorium had ended.

The ordinance puts it thus: “While the temporary moratorium is in effect, the City may accept, but shall not process or approve any application relating to the establishment or operation of a Medical Marijuana Dispensing Organization or Medical Marijuana Treatment Center.”

“I felt it was consistent with the approach the commission wanted to take,” Fournier added, referencing the Oct. 3 discussion about shortening the timeline.

The Florida Legislature will meet in the spring of 2017. Photo by Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Legislature will meet in the spring of 2017. Photo by Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons

A third change, Fournier continued, is the insertion of language recognizing that the “dispensing of cannabis remains illegal under federal law,” but that the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 issued what is called the “Cole memorandum. That recognized the fact that several states already had enacted laws legalizing marijuana, he told the board. It “did encourage regulation at the state and local level,” where the drug is legal, Fournier added, but it emphasized that it is not efficient use of federal resources to focus on enforcement in regard to the use of marijuana by “seriously ill individuals or … their caregivers.”

Fournier further explained this week that after he spent more time reviewing the proposed language of Amendment 2, he realized its lack of specificity. “I think it’s safe to say that an outright ban [of dispensaries] would not be allowed,” he continued, but reasonable zoning regulations would be all right as long as they were not in conflict with state law and they were designed to protect public safety, health and welfare. It is likely that the Florida Legislature will take up the issue next year if Amendment 2 passes, Fournier said. That is yet another reason a moratorium is advisable, as it would lead to a more efficient use of city staff resources. If the Legislature does enact a law with site-specific provisions, he added, that will give staff a starting point for city zoning regulations.

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo
Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell told her colleagues that since the board discussed the matter on Oct. 3, a number of people had asked her, “‘Are you banning [medical marijuana] just like you’re banning events?’ … I think we should make it clear that this is not a political decision,” she added. “This is a land use decision. This is what we do. We’re responsible for the implications of this entire thing.”

Freeland Eddie concurred: “We are dealing with the land use — when, where and how.”

Furthermore, Atwell said, “This indicates that we are going to stand at the ready with law enforcement. … I’m very supportive of [the moratorium].”

Mayor Willie Shaw referenced Fournier’s earlier comment about the City Commission being responsible for public safety, health and welfare.

When Shaw called for a motion, Atwell made it, with Alpert seconding it.