County commissioners hoping for more ‘robust discussion’ on Oct. 10 when they hold second public hearing on ordinance that would ban sale and processing of recreational marijuana

Speakers lambaste board for proposing the regulations

Canmabis sativa is one variety of marijuana. Photo by Michael de Benutzer via Wikimedia Commons

With only six members of the public having addressed them during the first public hearing this week, the Sarasota County commissioners said they hope for a much larger turnout on the morning of Oct. 10, when they will vote on whether to outlaw the cultivation, processing and sale of non-medical marijuana in the unincorporated parts of the county.

“Hopefully, we will have that robust conversation [then],” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said, “because it appears [the issue] is not getting the attention that it perhaps deserves.”

Commissioner Charles Hines said he was “disappointed with the lack of people here,” even though the board had talked about the issue on several prior occasions and the hearing had been advertised to the public. “We need more than five or six people here,” he added.

As the board members over the past several months have discussed the proposed ban on non-medical marijuana, they have pointed to the fact that the County Commission in 2014 adopted an ordinance governing medical marijuana. Even though 71.3% of registered voters approved Amendment 2 on the November 2016 ballot, approving the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida for specific conditions, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh has offered his opinion that the state law does not pre-empt the county law. Commissioners have indicated they are hopeful that if Florida voters at some point legalize recreational marijuana, Sarasota County regulations already in place also would be allowed to stand.

“We feel there’s a pretty good likelihood that [recreational marijuana’s legalization is] coming, Commissioner Charles Hines said on Aug. 29.

“A constitutional amendment could address the issue of pre-emption” in regard to medical marijuana, DeMarsh said on Aug. 29. However, he continued, it also is possible that, in writing a law to implement such an amendment, the Legislature would allow existing local government regulations to be enforced.

“Sometimes when the Legislature acts,” he added, “it protects existing regulations of local government. I can’t say whether that would happen here.”

“As a person who has had to write implementing laws,” Chair Nancy Detert pointed out, she could talk about the situation that ensued in the Legislature when a constitutional amendment was passed to ban smoking in restaurants. (Detert served in both the Florida House and Senate prior to her 2016 election to the commission.)

“If we had something in effect,” Detert said, “[the legislators] could write [the implementing law] to say … marijuana’s allowable everywhere unless, prior to [the effective] date [of the bill], local government had implemented something [outlawing recreational marijuana in its jurisdiction].”

As she had during a previous discussion of the proposed amendment, Detert also reminded her colleagues and the public that when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, it allowed each county to decide how to handle the issue. More conservative counties, such as the one where the Air Force Academy is located, chose not to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, she added. In Boulder, “which is extremely liberal,” she said, “they were thrilled with it.”

Detert and Hines also emphasized during the Aug. 29 public hearing that the proposed county ordinance applies to the sale of non-medial marijuana, not the use of the drug.

Public opposition

A chart explains the history of the legalization of medical marijuana in the state. Image courtesy Sarasota County

All but one of the six speakers on Aug. 29 urged the board members not to proceed with passage of local regulations. Among those who addressed the commissioners, Ben Cannon — who told them he works in property management and real estate — said he had tuned into the television coverage of the meeting that morning. He had not intended to make public comments on the issue, he said, but “I just was surprised to see that this was a topic to be discussed.”

Perhaps the focus should be on banning alcoholic beverages and tobacco use, Cannon continued, noting the tens of thousands of deaths in the United States each year associated with use of those substances. However, he pointed out, “The No. 1 issue facing us right now is red tide. That should be ‘all hands on deck.’”

In regard to the proposed ordinance prohibiting the growth, processing and sale of non-medical marijuana in the county, Cannon said, “The optics on this really appears to be a politically motivated move. … This topic of cannabis can wait another day.”

He added that the fact that the final public hearing is “roughly a month” before the Nov. 6 General Election especially seemed to make the issue a political one.

In fact, in the board members’ discussion prior to listening to the speakers’ remarks, Commissioner Caragiulo had asked, “What problem is this addressing now? [This is] more of a political issue as opposed to the actual regulation issue.”

Another speaker on Aug. 29, Bob Costa of Venice, argued against what he characterized as the commissioners’ efforts “to pre-emptively try and invent some regulations to avoid future laws … I don’t understand why you’re spending time on this.”
Like Cannon, Costa pointed to the “ecological crisis going on off our shore.”

A graphic explains some of the facets of the proposed ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

James M. Ray, who said he was representing the Libertarians of Sarasota County, told the commissioners, “You should table this piece of garbage on Oct. 10.”

When Michelle Britner provided her public comments on the issue, she addressed Commissioner Michael Moran. In the 2016 campaign, she told him, “You said you wanted to represent the people. You said you were committed to keeping Sarasota a community with as little governmental intrusion as possible. … With an amendment like this, do you think you’re upholding that commitment?”

Moran was the board member who — on May 22 — won suggested asking County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh to draft the ordinance at the heart of the hearing on Aug. 29.

Moran voiced concerns earlier this year that medical marijuana dispensaries approved in two county locations eventually could be converted to facilities selling recreational marijuana.

Before the Aug. 29 discussion ended, he reprised comments he made in July, when the board voted to advertise the draft ordinance. “Anybody that doesn’t feel that there is massive political lobbying behavior going on in Tallahassee over the commercialization of this is flat-out being naïve, in my opinion.”

If the board approves the ordinance after the second hearing in October, Moran continued, that would send a message to state government “that we do not want recreational marijuana in our community.”

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

The only speaker on Aug. 29 who voiced approval of the proposed ordinance was Frank Hedy, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam. “We don’t need recreational marijuana not to have suicides,” he told the commissioners, referring to another speaker’s comments about marijuana use having been shown to help people suffering with post traumatic stress disorder and as a preventive measure for veterans contemplating suicide.

“I’m against recreational marijuana 100%,” Hedy added. “This is gonna be a problem in our state of Florida.”

Commissioner Hines said he believes residents should have a discussion about what they want to see happen in Sarasota County if recreational marijuana becomes legal in Florida. He referenced the “mass commercialization” of the drug in the states of Colorado and Washington.

“Please, folks out there, look at the devastating, negative impacts that [recreational marijuana] has had in those other states. … This is about a store on every corner,” he added.

Before the first speaker approached the podium on Aug. 29, Chair Detert explained that the board would be taking no vote on the proposed ordinance that day. “You’re all welcome to come back” on Oct. 10, she said at the conclusion of the comments.