Office of the County Attorney directed to draft ordinance outlawing recreational marijuana in Sarasota County

Commissioners approve the action on 4-0 vote, with Chair Detert absent

Commissioner Michael Moran. Rachel Hackney photo

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh to work with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis on a zoning text amendment “to prohibit recreational marijuana in Sarasota County,” as Commissioner Michael Moran put it in his motion.

Commissioner Alan Maio seconded the motion.

Chair Nancy Detert was out of the room when the vote was taken.

During the board’s regular meeting on May 22, Moran brought up the memo the Office of the County Attorney had provided, at the board’s request, regarding issues relating to medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. The County Commission adopted an ordinance in 2014 — before Amendment 2 was approved by voters in November 2016 to legalize medical marijuana. The county law specified zoning districts where medical marijuana operations could be located, through the special exception process.

The state law enacted in 2017 to regulate medical marijuana said that local governments either could ban medical marijuana dispensaries altogether or enact no regulations for them that were more restrictive than those for pharmacies, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh’s May 8 memorandum pointed out.

On May 22, Moran called that memo “incredibly comprehensive.”

As he has made clear in the past, Moran continued, “I feel pretty strongly that this medical marijuana is a Trojan horse for recreational [marijuana].”

Moran cast “No” votes on two motions in April, through which the commission approved medical marijuana dispensaries planned on Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice and on Fruitville Road in Sarasota.

“I appreciate the medical benefits of cannabis,” he continued on May 23, “but I do think there’s a bigger play going on here.”

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

Then he cited part of the memo, which said that, although the State of Florida ultimately could preempt local regulations, the commission could amend the County Code to address concern that operators of medical marijuana treatment centers might want to open medical marijuana dispensaries. They would have an advantage with their existing businesses “should recreational use be approved later,” the memo said.

“I took that to mean, Mr. DeMarsh, that this board could prohibit recreational [marijuana],” Moran added on May 22.

Additionally, the memo explained, the county zoning code limits cultivation of “Cannabis” to a “Cannabis Farm,” which is allowed only by special exception in the Open Use Agriculture, Open Use Recreation, and Open Use Estate zoning districts. “The definition of ‘Cannabis,’” DeMarsh wrote, “does not limit itself to medical marijuana ….”

Could the commission enact an ordinance, Moran asked on May 23, “that might grandfather us in later with any activities in Tallahassee?”

One option the board has, DeMarsh replied, is to process a zoning text amendment to potentially ban the cultivation, processing and dispensing of recreational marijuana.

Nonetheless, DeMarsh added, many times in the past, when local governments had ordinances in place, “[legislators] protected existing regulations … Whether the Legislature would have that prerogative after a constitutional amendment [on recreational marijuana has been approved], I don’t know.”

“At worst case,” DeMarsh pointed out, “if the board had regulations on the books,” a constitutional amendment might make it impossible for the county to enforce them.

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Commissioner Charles Hines — the longest serving board member — explained that the 2014 ordinance governing medical marijuana was a step “to get ahead of the game.” The commission approved it, he said, when initiatives were underway to gain passage of a constitutional amendment legalizing that use of the drug. It might be time for the commission to take the same type of action in regard to recreational marijuana, he said.

“Are we at the point now,” Commissioner Maio asked, to direct the Office of the County Attorney “to put into place an ordinance that prohibits the growing of [recreational marijuana] and the conversion [of dispensaries] from medical marijuana to recreational?”

“That’s very much where I’m going with this,” Moran replied. If he had his colleagues’ consensus on making a motion, he would do so, he added.

“We’d simply want board direction,” DeMarsh said.

Then Moran made his motion.

After seconding it, Maio asked DeMarsh whether the proposed new ordinance would have an effect on petitions for new medical marijuana dispensaries, “which I bet will be coming in …”

“I don’t think it affects future petitions,” DeMarsh told him.