Medical marijuana dispensaries legalized in specific City of Sarasota zoning districts

City Commission approves ordinance on final reading; law went into effect Feb. 5

(From left) Louis Costello addresses the City Commission on Feb. 5 as Manny Lopez, Cathy Bryant and Olivia Babis listen. News Leader photo

It took only about 18 minutes on Feb. 5 for the Sarasota City Commission to unanimously clear the way for the operation of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.

St. Armands Circle and Newtown are among the areas where the businesses will be allowed to function as accessory uses within drugstores and grocery stores, as outlined in the new regulations.

The ordinance went into effect immediately after the Feb. 5 vote.

Only four city zoning districts will be allowed to have freestanding dispensaries: Downtown Core, which encompasses Main Street; Commercial General; Commercial Shopping Center-Regional; and Intensive Commercial District.

In the Downtown Core, the businesses must be separated from each other by at least 1,000 feet, City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out.

Additionally, dispensaries may operate in the Sarasota Memorial Hospital District as an accessory use.

Because of a bill approved by the Florida Legislature in June 2017, Fournier has explained, local governments cannot enact measures for dispensaries that are more restrictive than those for pharmacies. The only other option provided in the state bill is for an outright ban on dispensaries.

At the commission’s direction, city staff worked to narrow down the number of zoning districts where the businesses would be feasible, given the location of pharmacies in Sarasota.

A map shows zoning districts in the City of Sarasota where medical marijuana dispensaries may be located. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With the board members having conducted the first reading of the proposed ordinance on Jan. 16 — and voting unanimously for it then, too — no discussion ensued this week as part of the second reading.

Four members of the public did sign up to address the commission, however, and each urged approval of the final step in the process.

Cathy Bryant pointed out that she appeared before the board members seven months ago on behalf of her 22-year-old daughter, pleading for them to approve the operation of dispensaries. Medical marijuana, she said again on Feb. 5, is the only medication that helps her daughter, who is prone to suffering severe seizures.

Noting the long process to reach Monday night, Bryant said, “I appreciate you picking up that burden and helping me.”

On Oct. 17, 2016, the City Commission imposed a nine-month moratorium on the establishment of dispensaries as it awaited the results of a November 2016 referendum on the use of medical marijuana in Florida. Following the success of that ballot measure and then the Legislature’s approval of the June 2017 bill, the board voted on July 3, 2017 to ban dispensaries until staff had time to provide guidance on how best to structure guidelines for the operations.

On Sept. 18, 2017, Fournier reported on staff’s efforts to craft an ordinance allowing the dispensaries in specific zoning districts. Then the commissioners directed him and staff to proceed with initiating the process to make the dispensaries legal within the city.

A map shows the Downtown Core zoning district in the city of Sarasota with separation stipulations for new pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries as accessory uses. The City Commission approved the 1,000-foot separation stipulation. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I believe that marijuana’s not the ‘gateway drug,’” Manny Lopez told the commissioners on Feb. 5, referring to opponents of all forms of marijuana who claim users will progress to more serious drugs, such as heroin. “Alcohol is … and we allow it to be dispensed all over the place.”

Lopez urged the board to “approve the dispensaries; make them accessible … The people need [them].”

Louis Costello told the commissioners, “I may look like a hippie from the ’60s,” but he pointed out that he never has used recreational or medical marijuana. Nonetheless, he continued, “Your job basically is to make the quality of life better for the citizens. We’re asking you to do the right thing here.”

Following the public comments, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion to approve the proposed ordinance, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.