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Hillsborough Commissioners consider limiting medical marijuana dispensaries to 13 countywide

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Hillsborough County Commissioners intend to restrict the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 13, reversing a decision made two months ago that would have opened the door for unlimited dispensaries throughout the county.

In March, the board voted 4-3 to back a proposal by Commissioner Pat Kemp, which reversed an earlier decision to limit the number of sites that those with a legal prescription could purchase medically approved in the county, once it becomes legal in October.

But on Wednesday, Commissioner Ken Hagan said he regretted that decision, proposing a motion to hold public hearings on the matter June 7, possibly limiting the number of dispensaries to 13 countywide.

“The way our ordinance is written, there are no caps on the number of dispensaries that can open in Hillsborough County,” Hagan said. “I do not believe this is a prudent approach to take for an untested industry, and I also do not feel that the intent of the board was to allow for an unlimited number.”

Both Hagan and Commissioner Sandy Murman made unfavorable comparisons to the dispensaries resembling the state’s notorious “pill mills” that ran rampant in the late aughts throughout Florida that contributed to the opioid crisis that has spread across the country.

The board’s decisions come less than two weeks after the Florida Legislature ended the Regular Session without agreement on a bill creating statewide rules on medical marijuana.

If lawmakers do not return to Tallahassee to address the issue with a Special Session next month, it will be up to the state Department of Health to promulgate the regulations starting in July.

Hagan’s proposal would limit the number of dispensaries to one for every 67,000 residents in unincorporated areas — 13 in all. However, Hagan insisted it was a “starting point, not an ending point.”

“If we need or want to add more dispensaries later, we can always add them,” Hagan added.

Murman also wanted to add an amendment to prohibit selling smokable pot. Neither bill that was working its way through the Legislature this spring allowed for that, which would have Florida join only New York and Pennsylvania as being the only states that have legalized medical pot, yet do not allow it to be sold in smokable form.

Neither bill that progressed through the Legislature this spring allowed for that. If either bill passed, Florida would join only New York and Pennsylvania as the only states that legalized medical pot but banning it in smokable form.

“Young kids are experimenting with marijuana at a very young age now,” Murman said. “They think it’s no worse than alcohol and you can’t die from it, but I think limiting the number of dispensaries will actually be good for us in enforcing our message that we are restricting it to medical needs and medical use.”

Hagan’s motion passed 6-1, with Kemp being the lone dissenter. She maintained that the board was still getting ahead of itself, as some key leaders in the Legislature continue to say that they need to come back and pass a bill on the issue before July 1.

“All the states that have made legal medical marijuana — not one of them has put into place a system that limits the dispensaries like this is,” said Kemp.

The board will hold a public hearing June 7 to vote on the proposal.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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