The Hillsborough County Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt a 180-day moratorium on permitting new medical marijuana dispensing facilities. The move comes 34 days before Floridians go to the polls to decide whether medical marijuana should be legal in the state.
County Attorney Chip Fletcher said the moratorium will allow county staff to develop rules regarding parking, zoning, and other location criteria regarding construction of such facilities in the county. He also said his staff would be able to explore the parameters of what their operating permits should require, including hours of operation and advertising. Fletcher also indicated Tallahassee probably would be providing more guidelines if the ballot measure passes next month.
Two medical marijuana dispensaries have already been built in Hillsborough County, and are being “grandfathered” into the new ordinance. One of them is administered by the company known as Surterra Therapeutics, a business licensed by the Department of Health last November to be one of five in the state licensed to grow, process, package, and dispense cannabis to qualifying patients. That happened after the state Legislature passed a bill earlier this year allowing terminally ill patients access to low-grade marijuana to ease their suffering.
Commissioner Sandy Murman asked Fletcher if the county was currently aware whether those two facilities were located near any schools or playgrounds. Fletcher said that was not part of any requirement when county staff gave them a “zoning determination,” and said he did not know the answer to that question.
“We’ve made really strong statements on this board about protecting children, and keeping these types of facilities from being located near schools, and I want to make sure that when you start working on anything to do with zoning that you are adhering to those restrictions,” Murman told Fletcher. “I think it’s important that the public knows that this commission wants to keep our children safe.”
Board member Stacy White, a pharmacist, said he wanted to lend his expertise to county staff on creating a new regulatory framework with the dispensaries. He expressed concerns about medicinal patients “doctor shopping,” as was the case when it came to opiates in Hillsborough and the state over the last decade.
Although the issue before the board was simply about allowing a six-month moratorium and would not ban such facilities after that, several members of the public debated as if the board were facing a plebiscite on medical marijuana itself.
“You may associate cannabis as kids that go to parties and get drunk and get high, but we’re now finding that it’s a medicine, it’s a good thing, and we should be voting and looking to move the cause forward, rather than try to over-regulate it,” said Nathan Jurewicz with Christians for Cannabis.
“Marijuana is a harmful, devastating drug and I know because in my own family, my daughter used marijuana starting at age 15, and by the next year she went on to much harder drugs, including cocaine,” said Ellen Snelling of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition. “And there’s other people that probably can’t be here today that their kids started with marijuana and ended up on oxy’s and heroin, and some of them are not here today because of overdoses.”
“Whether it’s a stoned tourist or a stoned resident, our highway and transportation systems will be laden with impaired operators if we allow these dispensaries to set up shop,” warned Teresa Miller if Amendment Two passes next month. “Our county is already No. 1 in the state for DUI arrests and crashes. Do we want to put our families at greater risks by sanctioning more impaired drivers? Do we really want to attempt to regulate a plant that can be grown in someone’s backyard? Do we want pot shops, or palm trees down Dale Mabry?”
“Dispensaries provide an opportunity, for people to avoid going to the black market, to get the medicine that their relatives need,” said Chris Cano, executive director with Central Florida for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Cano said his grandmother died earlier this week from leukemia, and refused until her dying days to go against the law and smoke pot to relieve her pain. Cano said he had heard a lot of “propaganda” from anti-pot advocates who were citing increased crime rates in Colorado, which in 2012 legalized pot for everybody.
County Commission Chair Les Miller grew emotional when he discussed the topic, saying that his daughter will have her fourth surgery to deal with her cancer. “This is a major one,” he said solemnly. “The pain pills aren’t working.”
Ballots are being mailed out to those Floridians who requested one in advance of next month’s General Election, which takes place Nov. 8.