Attorney for The Flowery declines to stipulate that the new Venice dispensary never would sell anything but medical marijuana
Since the very first hearing was conducted on an application for a medical marijuana dispensary in Sarasota County, Commissioner Michael Moran has made clear his worry that those businesses could transition to selling recreational marijuana — if such sales eventually become legal in Florida.
In December 2022, during the County Commission’s last set of meetings before the holidays, Moran failed again to elicit an applicant’s promise that a proposed new dispensary in Venice would never market recreational marijuana.
This time, Chair Ron Cutsinger ended up joining Moran in voting against the application.
However, during that hearing, Moran raised a related issue for the first time: He cited initiatives in other states to legalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
As the Portland Mercury reported in April 2022, Oregon voters in 2020 passed Measure 109, which permits the use of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes. The measure went into effect on Jan. 2 of this year.
Later that day, during the board members’ Reports section, Moran raised the possibility that he likely would seek his colleagues’ support for a new county ordinance to prevent the sale of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic drugs in the county if such substances were to became legal in the state.
The Dec. 13, 2022 public hearing for the commission involved an application submitted to the county by The Flowery. The company was seeking permission to open a medical marijuana dispensary at 1763 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice. The facility would stand east of South Tamiami Trail and south of Shamrock Boulevard.
The hearing was listed on the commission agenda as a Presentation Upon Request. That process has been used to shorten board meetings in recent years by allowing the commissioners to vote on the requests without conducting full hearings. Yet — as indicated in the heading — the understanding remains that any board member may request a presentation by county staff and/or the applicant.
In this situation, Moran announced that he had a question for the applicant.
Matthew Brockway, an attorney with the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, who was representing the applicant, stepped to the podium.
As usual, Moran asked Brockway whether the company would stipulate that it never would sell recreational marijuana at the dispensary, if the commission approved the Special Exception application necessary for the dispensary to operate at that site.
Brockway noted that The Flowery had complied with all of the facets of the county ordinance regarding medical marijuana dispensaries. (The ordinance, which was put into effect before medical marijuana was legalized in Florida, was “grandfathered in” by legislative action following the voter approval of medical marijuana.)
However, Brockway told Moran, “We are not willing to make that stipulation [about recreational marijuana] at this current time …”
If state law made recreational marijuana legal at some point, Brockway continued, representatives of The Flowery would come back to the commission if the company wished to sell other types of marijuana products.
Yet, Brockway pointed out, “Based on the operator’s ownership history, this will always be a medical marijuana-focused facility … It will not transition to a purely recreational … facility …”
When Moran sought clarification that no stipulation would be forthcoming, Brockway replied that that was correct.
Then Moran said, “I’ve made it crystal clear that I think a lot of this is a Trojan horse.”
At that point, Moran noted the Oregon vote in 2020, adding that California voters “went further,” with what he called a “scary amount of support, in my opinion.”
As the Los Angeles Times has reported, in the latter part of December 2022, “roughly four months after an earlier version was gutted in a key state Assembly committee,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, reintroduced Senate Bill 58. It would decriminalize the use of “magic mushrooms” and ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic, so they could be used as treatment options for alleviating substance abuse disorders and other health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
The Times noted that the new version of the bill excluded synthetic psychedelics, including LSD and MDMA, the latter of which is known commonly as Ecstasy; those were included in the previous iteration of the bill.
In a statement that the Times quoted, Wiener said, “Psychedelics have tremendous capacity to help people heal, but right now, using them is a criminal offense.” He added, “These drugs literally save lives and are some of the most promising treatments we have for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction.”
After Moran made his comments about those other states’ actions, he asked whether Brockway would stipulate that his client would not “cultivate, manufacture, process, distribute, transport, possess, store, consume” products containing psilocybin or related chemical substances.
“I’m not familiar with those specific approvals,” Brockway responded. “I do believe that the political and cultural climate of the State of Florida is significantly different than those in those other jurisdictions.”
Brockway then reiterated that the request before the commission that day was for a Special Exception, as allowed under county regulations, for the sale of medical marijuana products.
He added that he had not read anything about the “medical merits or lack thereof” of products such as those Moran had mentioned. Yet, while he had not discussed that issue with his client, Brockway continued, “I don’t know that they would be opposed to this stipulation …”
His client was not present for the hearing, Brockway said.
“This is far afield from any issues that have come up in this petition or even been considered by my client,” he added.
“What I’m having trouble reconciling in my mind,” Moran responded, is “if you don’t plan on doing it, why wouldn’t you stipulate to it?”
Then Brockway told Moran that he did not believe any of the other applicants for Special Exceptions for medical marijuana dispensaries in the county had stipulated to a voluntary restriction on selling anything that already is prohibited under state law. “We just want to be treated equally …”
Other views of the issues
Newly elected Commissioner Joe Neunder of Nokomis pointed out during the discussion that medical marijuana dispensaries are similar to pharmacies in that a person has to have a prescription from a medical doctor to obtain any of the products.
“This is a highly regulated industry in the state of Florida,” Brockway said, noting restrictions on how those products are created.
The only other commissioner with a question was Nancy Detert, who asked whether medical marijuana dispensaries remain cash-only businesses, since marijuana still is a controlled substance under federal regulations.
Michael Smuts, a county resident who is the chief operating officer of The Flowery, explained, “Cash logistics have become easier for us,” because a “big-name cash logistics company” that serves fast-food restaurants has begun working with dispensaries. Additionally, he said, regional banks and cash couriers work with the companies.
Following her questioning, Detert noted, “We all see where Commissioner Moran is going.” Nonetheless, she said, over 70% of Florida voters supported the constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana. Referring to the owners of The Flowery, she added, “I’m not going to ask ’em to look into their non-existent crystal ball and make a prediction and a pledge based on who knows what. … No other people have done that when they have appeared before us, either.”
“I think you meet our criteria [for the Special Exception],” Detert old Smuts. “We are never going to be compared to California and Oregon.”
Following that exchange, Chair Cutsinger noted that two speakers had signed up to address the board. The first, Stephanie Peterson of Sarasota, explained that she was a Marine who had served in combat, and she is a licensed acupuncturist. Because of problems with PTSD, she indicated, she was able to get an early discharge from the service in 2012. “Medical marijuana has given me my life back,” she told the commissioners.
“Taking a dozen pills a day [of other types of medication] was not conducive to wellness or quality of health,” she added.
She is the junior commander of the VFW post “down the road,” Peterson continued, and she had been named Sarasota County Veteran of the Year for 2022.
“A lot of veterans are finding they’re healing with this plant,” she said of medical marijuana. “The pills are killing us.”
The second speaker, Don Fitts, the marketing director at Alderman Oaks, a privately owned retirement facility located near the intersection of Orange and Pineapple avenues in Sarasota, also voiced support for The Flowery’s application.
Detert ended up making the motion to approve the Special Exception, and Neunder seconded it.
Reprising new concerns
Later, during the Reports section of the meeting, Commissioner Moran talked of the fact that previous commissioners had worked with the Office of the County Attorney to draft and approve the medical marijuana dispensary regulations that the county enacted.
The county regulations give the commissioners much more control than they would have had otherwise, Moran continued, including the ability to dictate where dispensaries could be located.
“There are nationally, internationally, a lot of movements related toward hallucinogenics, psychedelics, all sorts of different products, let’s say,” Moran pointed out. “I’m pulling a little bit of a fire alarm here to this board,” he added.
Although he did not want to ask his colleagues that day to consider directing the Office of the County Attorney to start working on a draft ordinance related to county restrictions on sales of such drugs, he said the board members might take such a step in the future.