Regulations would require 1,000 feet of separation between facilities in the city’s main business district
One more public hearing will be required, but if the Sarasota City Commission vote early next month mirrors the one it took this week, medical marijuana dispensaries will be allowed in a number of zoning districts as of Feb. 5.
On a motion by Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, the commissioners voted unanimously during their Jan. 16 regular meeting to approve an ordinance staff worked on for months that will allow dispensaries as freestanding businesses in four zoning districts and as accessory uses in 10 others.
In one of the four where a dispensary would be allowed as a principal use — Downtown Core — the ordinance calls for a separation of 1,000 feet between such businesses. In response to a question about how many dispensaries potentially could operate in the Downtown Core district, City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out, “It is not unusual for a city block to be 300 feet long.” Therefore, he estimated five or six could be located in the Downtown Core, which encompasses Main Street.
When Vice Mayor Liz Alpert asked about the street boundaries for the Downtown Core, city Planner Dan Greenberg said School Avenue is the eastern boundary, Fruitville Road is on the north and U.S. 41 is on the west. He was not positive about the southernmost street, he added.
In response to a question from Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, Greenberg said that the 1,000 feet would be measured “as the crow flies,” instead of according to a “walking distance” standard employed in other zoning situations. The latter, she noted, incorporates the idea that a straight-line measurement is not necessary.
Dispensaries also will be allowed on St. Armands Circle and in Newtown, but only as accessory uses, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained. During previous commission discussions, he noted on Jan. 16, board members had indicated they did not want to prevent anyone from opening a drugstore or grocery store in those areas. A dispensary, therefore, would be allowed to operate inside such businesses.
Additionally, as allowed under state law, dispensaries will have to be a minimum of 500 feet from any school.
Fournier also noted that, according to the state law, dispensaries will be able to operate from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., which is two hours longer than city staff originally had proposed.
Further, Fournier pointed out that the Feb. 5 hearing would be the third required by law on the new ordinance, since it encompasses changes in the governance of land use. The city Planning Board approved the proposed regulations on a 4-1 vote in December 2017, he said.
Four of the five members of the public who addressed the commissioners during the Jan. 16 public hearing urged them to approve the proposed ordinance. Three stressed the need for dispensaries in the city, as their only options at this time are to drive to Bradenton or North Port or to have medical marijuana delivered.
When a person already has to deal with a variety of medical expenses, Wendy Mann Resnick pointed out, even a $25 delivery charge proves to be a burden. After she explained her son’s health issues to the commissioners, Resnick added, “It is difficult enough to get registered to get medical cannabis without the issue of actually being able to purchase it.”
Another speaker, Olivia Babis, told the board, “The disability community is the most disenfranchised community in the United States.” Even though a dispensary is located in Bradenton, she added, that does not mean it is convenient to Sarasota County residents who have disabilities.
In making her motion, Freeland Eddie noted the fact that other cities around Sarasota had elected not to allow dispensaries. Thus, she said, “it’s all the more important for our city to take action and follow the law and to make dispensaries available in the safest way that we are allowed to do, by statute.”
Freeland Eddie added that she felt staff and the board were doing the best they could to abide by the stipulations the Florida Legislature set when it passed a law in June 2017 to allow the businesses.
If problems arise, she pointed out, the commission will be able to amend the ordinance.
Commissioner Hagen Brody voiced concern about recent federal action indicating the U.S. Department of Justice will be putting more emphasis on prosecution of people who use marijuana. However, City Attorney Fournier said that when he read the latest Justice Department memo on that subject, he found “it wasn’t really as draconian or drastic as I thought it might be.” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions still is allowing prosecutors to make their own decisions about enforcement, Fournier added.
“The federal government puts the cities in an awkward position with this,” nonetheless, Brody responded. He wished the federal government would go ahead and take marijuana off the list as a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it subject to the most stringent regulation, he added. Then local governments would be able to pursue regulations of marijuana use as they saw fit.
Schedule 1 drugs are defined in federal law as those “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
More than a year in the making
In his opening remarks on the draft ordinance during the Jan. 16 meeting, Fournier told the commissioners, “I think that the staff and the City Attorney’s Office have followed the path that the City Commission set us down back in September  when this was discussed.”
The process actually began about a month before the November 2016 referendum on medical marijuana was held, he explained, as the board and staff expected the measure to pass. And although staff was at work on a draft ordinance last spring, the Legislature’s approval of the state law in June 2017 regarding the use of medical marijuana led to considerable changes, he noted. That law gave local governments two choices: to ban dispensaries altogether or to allow them under conditions no more restrictive than those for pharmacies. “We don’t really have a whole lot of latitude in this because of the new state law.”
The reality in the city of Sarasota, Fournier continued, is “that most pharmacies really exist more often than not as accessory uses rather than they do as principal uses.” In other words, he explained, people go into drugstores — such as a CVS or a Walgreens — and into grocery stores to pick up prescriptions.
The goal with the ordinance, he continued, also was not to interfere with the operation of existing pharmacies. As a result, staff drew up a draft ordinance that focused on zoning districts where pharmacies already existed. The only zone where such a business operates, but where new pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries will not be allowed, is Downtown Edge. The Sarasota Discount Pharmacy in that zone will be grandfathered in, he added. It stands at 110 N. Lime Ave.
Freeland Eddie indicated that the commissioners had heard a lot of questions from the public about the areas where the dispensaries will be allowed. At her request, city Planner Greenberg showed maps to the board and attendees at the meeting. (The maps are in the backup agenda material for the meeting.)
When Vice Mayor Alpert asked why staff had proposed the 1,000-foot separation for pharmacies and dispensaries in the Downtown Core district, Fournier replied that that district “is more likely to have a concentration [of the businesses],” because of the area it encompasses.
Staff did not feel the distance restriction was necessary in the other zoning districts, Fournier added. Because of the sizes of the others, he said, the dispensaries likely would be more widely dispersed.
Responding to earlier commission direction for research, City Manager Barwin noted that the Town of Longboat Key and the City of Venice have opted not to allow the operation of dispensaries.
Although Bradenton has one, Fournier said, that opened before the City Council acted on the issue. Since then, Barwin pointed out, Bradenton leaders have chosen not to let any other dispensaries open.