City staff receives commission direction to focus on office areas as the primary zoning districts for medical marijuana treatment centers

Goal is to allow dispensaries to open in July, as the City Commission planned when it passed a nine-month moratorium in October 2016

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

With the consensus of the Sarasota City Commission this week, city staff will continue working on new zoning regulations that would be applied to medical marijuana treatment centers. However, at the suggestion of City Attorney Robert Fournier, the board will await action of the Florida Legislature regarding regulatory measures related to the passage of Florida Amendment 2 in November 2016 before deciding how to proceed on that aspect of the legalization of medical marijuana. Fournier said he could discuss the regulatory issues with them again after the Legislature concludes its session in May.

“Right now, it is a virtual certainty that registration and licensing requirements for use of medical marijuana centers will be imposed at the state level, because the Constitution now provides that the state of Florida shall register and regulate [those facilities],” Fournier pointed out on March 6.

The goal, the commissioners agreed, is to allow dispensaries to open in the city in mid-July, as they planned when they voted in October 2016 to establish a nine-month moratorium on such facilities. To that end, Fournier said staff will refine a draft of the new zoning text he had prepared for the commission’s review that evening and then plan on getting it onto a Planning Board agenda in April or May.

The commissioners directed Fournier to focus on zoning districts for offices as locations for dispensaries. Commissioner Liz Alpert also suggested staff look into the potential for adding commercial and industrial zones, though Fournier earlier advised against that. His view, he said, based on the law, is that an office zoning district would be more appropriate.

Thus far, Fournier continued, staff members had concurred that the most appropriate zoning district for treatment centers would be the Sarasota Memorial Hospital district. However, he pointed out, “that is a rather restrictive zoning district,” because most of the property in it is owned by the hospital.

The Planning Board will need to hold just one hearing on the amendment, Fournier noted, but the City Commission will be required to hold two hearings.

Concerns about Police Department overreach

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. Rachel Hackney photo

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie also made it clear during the commission’s regular meeting on March 6 that Sarasota Police Department personnel should not be equating the prescription and dispensing of medical marijuana with “pill mills,” calling the issues “two separate animals.”

She recently had joined Sarasota Police Department (SPD) representatives in a tour of the Trulieve operation in Clearwater, she pointed out. (Trulieve is one of seven companies licensed in the state to produce and dispense marijuana in accord with an earlier state law allowing full-strength medical marijuana for use by terminally ill patients and non-euphoric marijuana for those with epilepsy, chronic muscle spasms or cancer.)

“I think we are in very, very dangerous territory,” she told Mike Harrell, a civilian narcotics investigator with SPD, and Capt. Corinne Stannish, with department personnel suggesting a wide array of regulatory concerns that should be considered.

The Legislature — which began its 2017 session on March 7 — had six bills already filed as of March 6 to handle such matters, Freeland Eddie pointed out.

“I agree with the vice mayor,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell said. People in the community already had voiced concerns to her, Atwell said, that the new state law allowing the use of medical marijuana was being cast in a negative light, comparable to the view of pain clinics.

“No one is saying there’s not a medical need [for marijuana],” Stannish responded. “We are not trying to target the patient.” What SPD personnel want to do, Stannish said, is prevent problems, including the potential for production of the drug — and its related odors — to affect neighborhoods, for example.

Mike Harrell. Image from LinkedIn

Another concern is the potential for robberies of the offices of physicians who will be treating patients, Mike Harrell, a member of the SPD’s Narcotics Division, told the commissioners. He referenced a billboard he had seen on Bee Ridge Road, advertising doctors in the area who can prescribe medical marijuana. Their fee is $125 for a patient exam, he added.

As of March 3, Harrell said, 17 physicians in Sarasota County have taken the state exam and have become licensed to prescribe medical marijuana.

Laying the groundwork

To allow the board plenty of time to ensure it can end its moratorium on dispensaries in July, Fournier explained on March 6, he was seeking direction on how best to proceed with both zoning issues and regulatory issues.

Noting that Amendment 2 passed on Nov. 8, 2016, Fournier read the ballot summary: “Allows medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating medical conditions as determined by a licensed Florida physician. Allows caregivers to assist patients’ medical use of marijuana. The Department of Health shall register and regulate centers that produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes and shall issue identification cards to patients and caregivers. Applies only to Florida law. Does not immunize violations of federal law or any non-medical use, possession or production of marijuana.”

He added that the full amendment defines medical marijuana treatment centers and consistently uses the acronym of MMTC for them. Therefore, Fournier continued, city staff could use “MMTC” in its zoning amendment.

Although SPD personnel has fears that the MMTCs will lead to problems similar to those that arose with “pill mills,” Fournier said, he feels the treatment centers “can be operated and managed in a responsible and professional way within the parameters of the law.” The Florida Department of Health is required to issue “reasonable regulations and procedures” for the implementation of Amendment 2, he added.

Still, he acknowledged, “It’s possible that the Police Department’s worst nightmares … might come true. We just don’t know.”

Capt. Corinne Stannish. Image from the Sarasota Police Department

Amendment 2 says an MMTC “means an entity that acquires, cultivates, possesses, processes (including development of related products such as food, tinctures, aerosols, oils, or ointments), transfers, transports, sells, distributes, dispenses, or administers marijuana, products containing marijuana, related supplies, or educational materials to qualifying patients or their caregivers and is registered by the [Health] Department. “

Commissioner Alpert then asked about allowing the cultivation of medical marijuana in office zoning districts, as the law seems to allow cultivation at the MMTCs.

“I thought about that,” Fournier told her, “and I just don’t think, frankly, that there’s going to be any opportunity in the city limits for large-scale outdoor cultivation because the city is just so developed.”

Capt. Stannish of SPD disagreed with that observation: “We do have land here that I believe would be large enough.” Her primary concerns, she said, were odors, fire hazards and other safety issues.

“I would assume we could put some pretty tight restrictions on [cultivation in an office zoning district],” City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners. One concern he had, he said, was the potential for “a really dangerous electrical fire.”

Commissioner Susan Chapman also voiced a desire to make certain dispensaries would be well separated from neighborhoods and schools. Fournier told her he expected the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services staff would ensure such stipulations are part of the draft zoning amendment.

Harrell of SPD also talked of his conversations with the manager of the Trulieve operation in Clearwater. When he asked the man what he would consider the ideal place for the dispensaries, Harrell told the board, the man responded, a “‘hospital and medical zoning district.’ He wants it to be looked at as a legitimate business.”

When Harrell later pointed out that one bill filed in the Legislature would restrict dispensaries to one per 25,000 residents, Barwin asked, “Could a municipality decide not to have one?”

“I don’t think that’s consistent with the constitutional amendment,” Fournier replied.