Board members cite continuing concerns that, if recreational marijuana is legalized in Florida, dispensaries will ‘flip’ to recreational sales
On a split vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission approved a Special Exception petition from medical marijuana provider Trulieve to open a dispensary in a former bank building standing at 1100 S. Tamiami Trail in Osprey.
Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion, which gained support from Commissioners Ron Cutsinger and Christian Ziegler, though Ziegler pointed out that he had conflicted feelings about the proposal.
Taking the tack he has pursued in previous public hearings on dispensary petitions, Chair Michael Moran tried to gain assurance from the agent for Trulieve, Daniel Sparks, that the company would not convert the dispensary to a recreational marijuana business if recreational marijuana becomes legal in the state of Florida. Sparks declined to give it.
Detert pointed out that she lives near the first medical marijuana dispensary the commission approved, which is located on Center Road in Venice. The only sign that it is a dispensary, she emphasized a couple of times during the Dec. 8 hearing, is the Trulieve logo on the front of the structure.
Moreover, she continued, Trulieve fulfilled the promises it made to the commissioners about on-site security at that facility. Further, “It’s never created a traffic problem, and it’s a pretty busy street.”
Detert also explained, “I happen to have a handicapped sister, and she uses medical marijuana, and she couldn’t sleep or probably walk without it.”
Members of the public do want medial marijuana dispensaries to be convenient to their homes, Detert said.
“I don’t like the fact that [that the new Trulieve location would be] so close to the residential area,” Ziegler said, referring to the Pine Run Drive neighborhood.
The board members denied the previous petition they received for a dispensary primarily because it would have been in the vicinity of other dispensaries on Clark Road, Ziegler pointed out. However, he continued, with the Osprey site, “It’s hard to say the same thing.”
Cutsinger told his colleagues that both his son and daughter-in-law are pharmacists, and he has had lengthy discussions with them about medical marijuana. He understands, Cutsinger continued, that some people do benefit greatly from using the drug. “It’s really changed their lives.”
Nonetheless, he did concur with other commissioners’ concerns about the proximity to the neighborhood.
Commissioner Alan Maio indicated his displeasure with the fact that the new dispensary would be so close to Pine Run Drive. Most of the neighborhood is just within a 500-foot radius of the site, he noted.
When Maio asked Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye about the potential of amending the county’s Unified Development Code to increase the buffer between medical marijuana dispensaries and residential areas, Moye explained that any modification of the county ordinance would make the ordinance invalid. Moye reminded the commissioners that a previous board authorized the county regulations prior to voters’ November 2016 legalization of medical marijuana in Florida. The state law governing medical marijuana operations grandfathered in existing county ordinances, Moye added.
“So back then, [when the county ordinance was approved],” Maio said, “we should have made it stricter?”
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Moye responded.
“A big part of this job,” Detert said, “is to protect the value of people’s homes. … I don’t think this [Trulieve] operation [in Osprey] would have a negative impact at all on property values.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Cutsinger, who was just elected in November, Moye pointed out that the county regulations prohibit the sales of non-medical cannabis in all county zoning districts. However, if voters made recreational marijuana sales legal in Florida, Moye continued, the Legislature, in passing a bill to implement the change in the state Constitution, could pre-empt any county regulations.
Commissioner Ziegler acknowledged that. “So it’s hard to really predict what [the legislators] could do.”
Maio voiced hope that, if recreational marijuana becomes legal, the Florida Legislature will allow counties to opt out of allowing such sales, just as it allows local government jurisdictions to ban all sales of medical marijuana.
Moye pointed out that the state law regarding the latter says that if a local government body wants to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, those businesses have to be treated the same as pharmacies.
The ‘flip’ factor
As he has in the past during such public hearings, Chair Moran took the opportunity of the Dec. 8 discussion to reassert his opposition to the potential that dispensaries could switch to recreational marijuana sales in the future.
He also decried Trulieve agent Sparks’ taking time to show the board members a slide depicting the vote of Sarasota County residents in November 2016 on Amendment 2 to the state Constitution, which legalized medical marijuana.
Statewide, Sparks noted, more than 70% of voters approved the measure. In the county, Sparks added, 70% of the 226,000 voters who cast ballots on the amendment approved it, too.
“This is a Special Exception land use hearing,” Moran told Sparks. He was curious, Moran said, about the reason for Sparks’ including that slide in the Trulieve presentation.
“Just to speak to the sentiment of the community in Sarasota County,” Sparks replied.
“Well, I’m sure if you did a survey, most people like puppies, too,” Moran told Sparks, “but they don’t want a kennel next to their home. So, again, was it political in nature or was it related to the land use?”
Sparks reiterated his comment that his intent simply was to illustrate the support of county voters for Amendment 2.
Then Moran asked Sparks the same question he has asked every other applicant for a medical marijuana dispensary over the past couple of years: If recreational marijuana sales become legal in the state, “Are you willing to stipulate that you won’t do recreational at the facility?”
“That’s not my decision to make solely,” Sparks responded, “so I don’t know that I can answer that.”
After giving Sparks an opportunity for rebuttal following board discussion, Moran asked him for clarification that the company’s “leadership gave you no authority to negotiate any stipulations?”
“I was given authority to come and present the petition [for the Special Exception],” Sparks replied. “I don’t have sole authority to agree to that stipulation right here, right now,” he added, referring to Moran’s questioning about the potential for the “flip” of the dispensary to recreational marijuana sales.
Later, Moran also criticized Sparks for failing to review the videos of previous board hearings on medical marijuana dispensaries. “So there could have been easily preparation to answer the question thoroughly,” Moran said.
If Trulieve’s mission is to provide medical marijuana for patients, Moran pointed out, “then it should be an easy stipulation, if you ask me.”
Details about the new dispensary
During her Dec. 8 presentation about the Special Exception petition, County Planner Hannah Sowinski pointed out that the site of the dispensary would be west of U.S. 41 and north of Blackburn Point Road.
Pine View School is about 1,100 feet to the northeast of the parcel, she added.
“There are many surrounding businesses,” she said, including a CVS pharmacy and a Publix grocery store.
Four other medical marijuana dispensaries are in North County, she noted.
During his presentation, Sparks, the agent for Trulieve, noted that the demand for medical marijuana “far outpaces the supply” in the state. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he added, “The patient count has risen exponentially.”
More than 100,000 new patients have been registered since March, Sparks said. “That’s a very significant rise …”
Trulieve offers 170 different product types, he pointed out. “These products are not readily available in a CVS or a Walgreens,” he added.