Pasco OKs medical marijuana dispensaries

The complete picture of the future of the medical marijuana industry remains hazy, but by spring – perhaps even sooner – Pasco County could have its first medical marijuana dispensaries.

The number of dispensaries that will be permitted remains unclear.

Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore wants to allow no more than six. One location and one permit each could be awarded to the six dispensary operators currently licensed by the state, if they apply.

“They may not all come,” Moore said, adding he doesn’t think all of them will.

A vote on an ordinance, which could include a six dispensary limit, is scheduled for Feb. 21 in New Port Richey. The county’s legal staff plans to research the issue for potential legal challenges.

However, at the Dec. 13 meeting in Dade City, county commissioners approved a separate ordinance allowing dispensaries within industrial districts, and establishing conditions for their operations. The vote was 4 to 1, with Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano the lone dissenter.

Mariano said access is important and confining dispensaries to industrial areas “is not good for us economically.”

However, the Dec. 13 vote opened the door for applicants to file for dispensary permits. The process generally takes 45 to 60 days, with a final vote needed by commissioners.

If approved, the medicinal shops would be dispensing the low-level form of medical marijuana, known as Charlotte’s web. This limited medical marijuana program is the result of a 2014 statewide referendum.

New regulations stemming from a Nov. 8 referendum that will increase the number of qualified patients, and allow stronger strains, are months away. They will be decided by the Florida Department of Health and state legislators.

In the interim, county commissioners also approved an ordinance for a one-year moratorium on the production, cultivation and distribution of cannabis, the product used to make medical marijuana. This replaces an existing moratorium that ends Dec. 31, and gives the county additional time to wait on what happens with the new amendment.

The sticking point for county commissioners is where to place dispensaries – in industrial or commercial districts.

“I would rather be open for business,” said Pasco County Commissioner Mike Wells. “I want to make sure we’re open to this when it comes time for the legislature to make decisions …or we’re going to miss the boat. I don’t see why we limit it.”

Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey had reservations. “If we don’t limit it, and we allow it in any zoning, they could be everywhere,” she said.

County staff members presented a map, pinpointing up to 20 locations in the county that would meet the county’s requirement of a one-mile separation between facilities. However, they estimated fewer than 10 dispensaries would open.

Other restrictions require that dispensaries be at least 1,000 feet from such facilities as schools, day care centers and drug treatment centers. Buffering and adequate setbacks are required between a dispensary and any residential property.

Applicants must show they are licensed by the state to operate a dispensary, as well as meeting the county’s zoning conditions for permitting.

Some residents who spoke during public comment urged county commissioners to make dispensaries as accessible as possible.

Industrial areas often are isolated and not safe, said Kelly Miller, who lives in Holiday.

While no one wants dispensaries on every corner, she said, “My concern is we are shaming people to go into these (industrial) areas. What happens is, you’re limiting people to the access. How are you going to get a bus if you have glaucoma? If you’re suffering from cancer? Are you going to take a cab out to the middle of nowhere?”

Todd Pressman, a Palm Harbor-based land use attorney, told commissioners to “err on the side of caution. You don’t have complete control over conditional use (permits), and there will be challenges. You know that.”

Hudson resident Michelle Flood said, the Nov. 8 referendum sent a clear message that people want dispensaries.

“I know people personally who get their medicine from Hillsborough (County) and Pinellas (County), and they are being delivered into Pasco County,” she said. “It’s coming. You’re not going to be able to stop it.”

Published December 21, 2016

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