Pinellas commissioners hear mixed opinions on pot moratorium

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

Pinellas County Commissioners listened to opinions Jan. 10 for and against a proposed moratorium on approving new medical marijuana dispensing facilities in unincorporated Pinellas.

They want to give staff time to prepare zoning regulations that would ensure the “health, safety and welfare relating to the cultivation, possession, processing, transfer, transport, selling, distribution and dispensing of medical marijuana,” according to the proposed language governing the moratorium.

State law allows counties to decide the criteria for the number, location and other permitting requirements as long as they do not conflict with state law or other rules. The legislature is expected to approve legislation this year that would regulate the requirements of Amendment 2, passed by the voters in November. The state Department of Health is responsible to draft the rules. It has six months, starting this month, to complete its mission.

The county would like a moratorium to remain in place until the state finishes its work and staff can explore how they might affect the county’s permitting process. The commission also wants time to develop an ordinance “to address this new and unique use,” plus hold public hearings prior to adopting local rules for permitting the facilities.

County Administrator Mark Woodard said staff planned to have a zoning ordinance ready for the commission to review by March or April. He added that it would only apply to unincorporated areas and that each municipality would be responsible for its own zoning rules. Some interest has been expressed in trying to make rules that could serve as a model for the municipalities.

Several of the speakers at the first public hearing favored the moratorium. Amy Ronshausen, deputy director for Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society from Drugs, talked about “normalizing” marijuana use and the possibility of abuse by children. She expressed concern for the public health and safety, especially if the marijuana was added to food products, such as soda pop and gummy bears.

County Commissioner John Morroni said the best solution would be for the state to regulate food products “instead of county by county.”

“Our main interest is for it not to get in the hands of youth,” Ronshausen said.

She said medical marijuana should be treated like medicine and look like medicine.

Other speakers echoed Ronhausen’s concerns. Colleen May of Largo said she had been fighting the issue for many years. She said the commission needed to look for possible loopholes and reminded them that medical marijuana was a for-profit business.

“It is very, very smart to have a moratorium to give you time to plan,” she said.

Kay Doughty of Pinellas Park, who in an employee for Operation Par, which provides addiction and mental health services in the county, also supports the moratorium and wants to make sure facilities are not located near “where kids are.”

She said dispensing facilities already existed in the county and people certified by a physician could get medical marijuana by mail order. She offered the assistance by Operation Par to the commission and county staff.

Dani Hall of Clearwater, a mother of two autistic sons ages 13 and 11, explained why she was opposed to the moratorium.

“I’ve been fighting for medical marijuana for years,” she said.

She also said science backs up the benefits of its use with children with autism. She wants to make sure the implementation of Amendment 2 is not delayed. She reminded the commission that voters had approved it.

“Remember moms like me that pharmaceutical drugs have failed,” she said.

John Chase of Palm Harbor reminded the commission that changes to the state’s medical marijuana regulations had been approved by the voters – 75 percent approval in Pinellas and 71 percent statewide.

Cyndi Hamad of Seminole told the commission that she was a long-term mental health counselor and supported the use of medical marijuana. She said any delay would “continue the suffering of patients.”

She debunked the information from Drug Free America, calling it “propaganda,” adding that medical marijuana was not responsible for overdoses or deaths and had no significant side effects or drug interactions.

She and others asked the commission to follow “the will of the people.”

Commissioner Ken Welch said it was not the intent to delay the “will of the people.” He said the commission wanted time to consider a new process and wait on the state regulations before considering zoning changes.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said the commission needed to do its work as soon as possible to make medical marijuana available to those it can help and those in favor of allowing it.

The second public hearing is scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 24, in the County Commission Assembly Room, Fifth Floor, Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater. The public hearing portion of the meeting will start at 6 p.m.