Office of the County Attorney to provide report to County Commission on whether county can impose more limits on medical marijuana dispensaries

Discussion arises after board approves two dispensaries in two days

The County Commission has approved this binding development concept plan for the AltMed dispensary in the Cobia Bay shopping center on Fruitville Road in Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Having approved the first two medical marijuana dispensaries in Sarasota County in two days, the Sarasota County Commission this week asked Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy to prepare a report on potential options for tightening the ordinance it approved several years ago that covers such businesses.

As Commissioner Alan Maio put it, “I don’t want to find us a year from how having approved dozens of these and saying, ‘How did we get here?’ because it was an incremental, slow creep.”

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo raised the issue after the board voted 4-1 on April 11 to allow a special exception for AltMed — a Sarasota-based business — and its partners to open a dispensary in the Cobia Bay shopping center located at 5077 Fruitville Road.

The previous day, the commissioners also voted 4-1 to allow Trulieve to open a medical marijuana dispensary in a freestanding building in a retail shopping center located at 1260 Jacaranda Blvd. in Venice.

Commissioner Mike Moran. File photo

With both petitions, Commissioner Michael Moran cast the “No” vote after asking numerous questions of representatives of Trulieve and AltMed, including whether they would restrict their businesses in the two locations to medical marijuana products only, if the state ultimately legalizes recreational marijuana. Both Victoria Walker, a community relations representative of Trulieve, and Todd Beckwith, vice president of marketing for AltMed, declined to agree to such a stipulation.

“Is it time now, perhaps, to look at … limiting the probability [of a multitude of dispensaries in the county]?” Caragiulo asked during the April 11 discussion after the public hearing on the AltMed proposal. He noted that the county ordinance calls for a minimum separation of 500 feet from any medical marijuana research and processing use, an existing school, house of worship, daycare facility, public park or public beach.

“Is that just a nice round number?” Caragiulo continued. “Can it be increased?”

Of course, he acknowledged, the Florida Legislature could enact additional rules in the future that could have an impact on county action.

“I know, to an extent, our regulation’s grandfathered,” Roddy explained. “That’s something we’d have to look at, but we may be limited in that, unless we want to risk losing that status.”

A graphic shows the distance from the Cobia Bay dispensary site to other locations, as required in the county ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When the Legislature approved rules for the dispensing of medical marijuana, it allowed local governments that already had ordinances in place — such as Sarasota County — to continue to operate under those guidelines. Otherwise, the state law allows local governments to enact no laws relative to medical marijuana dispensaries that are more restrictive than the local governments have in place for pharmacies and drug stores, Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier has explained to the City Commission.

“I know lots of folks … who have told me of the benefit [of medical marijuana],” Caragiulo said.

In fact, when Chair Nancy Detert called for a motion on the April 10 request, board members were slow to respond. After Caragiulo made the motion to approve the Venice dispensary, Detert seconded it. She later noted, “My last job was [state] senator, so I’ve had to deal with this issue. I always thought it was Step 1 to recreational marijuana,” she continued.

Then Detert began talking about her sister, who is in her 60s “and has been sick since she was 14.” Her sister had to be homeschooled because of her health, Detert added. “She has had a life of real pain, and this helps her,” Detert said, her voice quivering. “If [medical marijuana] helps others, and it’s available, I think we need to [approve dispensary applications].”

On April 11, Caragiulo told Deputy County Attorney Roddy what he specifically was interested in was the potential of “augmented safeguards” in the county ordinance to limit the number of dispensaries.

A graphic shows the Cobia Bay complex. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I like where you’re going with this,” Detert responded. “I think it’s probably unanimous that we’d all like to know what our options are,” she told Roddy.

Because the county ordinance calls for approval of the dispensaries through the special exception process, Roddy indicated that that does give the commissioners some latitude in deciding the appropriateness of locations for proposed new dispensaries.

Caraguilo then noted that he would have expected more public interest in the issue.

The previous day, only one person signed up to address the board regarding the Trulieve proposal, and she encouraged the commissioners to approve the application. Mary White said her 23-year-old daughter suffers with seizures. Medical marijuana provides her daughter relief, White added.

As for the AltMed hearing on April 11: “There’s nobody” in the audience, Caragiulo pointed out.

If a dispensary were proposed closer to a neighborhood, Detert replied, she would expect residents to show more concern.

After viewing the two presentations on April 10 and April 11, Commissioner Maio said, he had found them clever. He added, “The way the constitutional amendment was written — clever. The way, to a certain extent our hands are tied — clever.”

The commission has approved this binding development concept plan for the Trulieve dispensary in Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Other jurisdictions have allowed the dispensaries, he continued, including Bradenton, as White noted during the April 10 public hearing on the Trulieve dispensary.

“Very clever,” he added, “that the first two locations [in Sarasota County] are inside a commercial [facility],” reducing the likelihood that residents would object to the proposals.

As Beckwith of AltMed had pointed out that morning, Maio continued, 13 companies have state licenses to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana, and the state allows for 18 after the number of legal Florida residents who become registered to obtain medical marijuana reaches 100,000. Beckwith also noted that the number of medically approved users is fast approaching that mark, Maio reminded his colleagues.

(Beckwith further explained that each company is limited to 25 dispensaries statewide and that a cap is imposed on the number according to a list of regions denoted by the state.)

What if the companies licensed to distribute medical marijuana decide they want to open two or three locations in Sarasota County? Maio asked. “I think we need some sort of report.

Could one thing lead to another?

During Commissioner Moran’s questioning of the applicants on both April 10 and 11, he indicated concern that the legalization of medical cannabis in Florida is a step toward making recreational marijuana legal.

In an April 11 exchange with Beckwith and Robert Lincoln, the attorney representing the owner of the Cobia Bay shopping center, Moran said, “What’s troubling to me is I can’t get an answer that I’m comfortable with … why the regulation [of medical marijuana] is so completely outside normal medical/pharmaceutical-type behaviors.”

Moran added, “Why did the state go to such effort” to keep the dispensing of medical marijuana away from drug stores and pharmacies.

A graphic shows the location of the planned Trulieve dispensary. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think that the broader answer there,” Lincoln began, is that the Florida constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2016 “provides for how medical marijuana is going to be made available in Florida. … Until there is reform of federal drug legislation that prevents federally regulated institutions from participating in medical marijuana [dispensing], then it would be very, very difficult to merge those systems today.”

Some people would argue, Moran replied, that the state has required the separation of pharmacies from medical marijuana dispensaries “because the ultimate goal of this is an incredibly coordinated and controlled effort from Tallahassee, from a very small group of people,” who want to see recreational marijuana legalized in the state.

“Adult use is not part of our business plan” Beckwith told Moran, “nor am I aware of any conspiracy or group effort” in Tallahassee working to make recreational marijuana legal as the next step. However, Beckwith added, “I can’t say it doesn’t exist.”

When Moran asked whether he would stipulate to AltMed’s refraining from any involvement with recreational marijuana if it became legal in Florida, Beckwith replied, “I don’t stipulate.”

Lincoln added that the state statutes “establish a very controlled way for people — companies — to operate inside a system” for dispensing medical marijuana, along with the rights of patients to obtain it.

“You’re asking them to come up with an opinion about conspiracies and the future,” Detert told Moran, “and I think their crystal ball’s probably broken.”

“I asked for a stipulation,” Moran replied.

Following the discussion after the public hearing, Detert won assurance from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Roddy that the Office of the County Attorney would prepare a report to answer the board members’ questions.

“We’ll make it an official board assignment and get it out to you,” Lewis told her.