A budtender pours out flower available to medical marijuana patients at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a medical marijuana dispensary, in Los Angeles, California. Florida cities are trying to figure out what state regulations mean for setting up medical marijuana dispensaries. (David McNew, Getty Images file)

Sarasota, Florida plotting workaround to comply with state MMJ laws

Sept. 19 — SARASOTA — City leaders are planning to work around a state law to try to more closely regulate where medical marijuana dispensaries could operate within Sarasota.

This summer, state legislators passed a suite of rules implementing a voter initiative to legalize medical marijuana, including a requirement that local governments must not restrict dispensaries any more than they do traditional pharmacies.

The new rule effectively erased the city’s months-long effort to draft its own regulations that would allow dispensaries in only a few specific locations and at a minimum distance from homes, schools and churches.

City leaders felt treating dispensaries as they do pharmacies would allow them across large swaths of the city, so they voted to outright ban them until planners could devise an alternative.

City leaders got their first glimpse at that alternative Monday night and unanimously endorsed a plan to craft rules that they call a kind of “middle ground” between the ban and current pharmacy rules.

In short, if the city must regulate dispensaries as it does pharmacies, the city should revise its zoning rules regulating pharmacies to be slightly more restrictive, planners propose.

That could be accomplished through a formal zoning text amendment that effectively would limit standalone dispensaries to about a half-dozen zoning districts — from in or around downtown to some types of typical commercial shopping centers, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained.

The staff will prepare those specific amendments over the next two months to try to lift the ban on dispensaries shortly after the New Year, city leaders said.

“The goal was to take it to the Planning Board before the end of this calendar year, hopefully in November. I think October is unrealistic,” Fournier said. “Then to have this (amendment) come back to the commission right away after the first of the year.”

The new rules will rely on a planning concept that dstinguishes between “principal” and “accessory” uses on any given property.

By stipulating that pharmacies and dispensaries may only be the independent, primary use on properties in about a half-dozen particular zones in the city, like downtown or certain commercial centers, the city could limit where medical marijuana can be dispensed to areas that are “appropriate,” Fournier said.

Only five pharmacies exist in the city today as principal uses, such Agevital on Main Street or the Hedges HealthMart on Lime Avenue, according to city records.

The remainder of pharmacies are so-called accessory uses, which means they are secondary operations on a larger property. These include all of the CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, which are secondary to the chains’ over-the-counter drugstore operations, and Publix pharmacies, which are secondary to the grocery store itself, Fournier said.

The new rules also would allow dispensaries as accessory uses in CVS, Walgreens, a medical facility or even Publix — but the state’s permitting rules do not allow that, practically limiting dispensaries to those first half-dozen particular zones, Fournier said.

Two weeks ago several medical marijuana advocates blasted the commission for implementing its ban earlier this year and complained that Fournier was dragging his feet on the proposed alternative, with some personally attacking his motivations and even call for his firing. Fournier explained the ongoing plan to those critics at the time and none of them reappeared for the discussion of the rules Monday night.

Only one speaker, Glen Gibellina, addressed the commission to ask them to not restrict dispensaries, calling the permitted dispensers “high-level, deep-pocket, professional people.”

“You’d be honored to have it down Main Street if someone wanted to have it there,” he said. “More importantly, it will send a message to the community that you are compassionate about alternative medicine … This is a professional organization; these aren’t your local head shops with bongs and water pipes.”

Exactly which zones would allow stand-alone, principal-use dispensaries is still under review. Those zones and the final proposed text of the changes will be subject to at least three public hearings, at which point residents could weigh in on where dispensaries should be allowed, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

The commission’s discussion came on the eve of the opening of the first dispensary in Southwest Florida in Bradenton. The location will be leading medical marijuana company Trulieve’s 10th dispensary in Florida, and the only one between St. Petersburg and Miami.

Information from Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.