The local debate on how to regulate medical marijuana in Pasco County remains unsettled.
But, two Tampa land use attorneys recently briefed county commissioners on the legal difficulties they face, and the vast sums of money at stake as the medical marijuana industry expands.
County commissioners also received a recommendation from the county’s legal staff on limiting medical marijuana in Pasco to industrial districts, with conditions.
The potential use of some industrial properties for medical marijuana dispensaries didn’t go over well with Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.
“I don’t want to take any more industrial off the books,” he said.
Currently, a low level form of medical marijuana, known as Charlotte’s web, is legal in Florida for patients with seizure disorders. Terminally ill patients can qualify for stronger potencies of medical marijuana.
A Nov. 8 statewide referendum, if approved, would open the door to more dispensaries statewide, while also increasing the number of illnesses that can be treated with medical marijuana.
The law currently allows only five sites, geographically dispersed across the state.
There is money to be made in this budding industry.
A Miami-Dade County study recently estimated that each eligible patient would spend up to $3,600 a year on medical marijuana.
Data from the Florida Department of Health predicted that by 2017 there would be about 450,000 patients statewide. That would translate to about $1.3 billion in medical marijuana sales, according to attorney Gina Grimes of Hill Ward Henderson.
Pro-industry data suggests the number of patients could be as many as 700,000, Grimes added.
She and Morris Massey, of the same law firm, gave a presentation on medical marijuana to county commissioners on Sept. 20 at a public workshop in New Port Richey.
“We’re not here to advocate either in support of or against marijuana,” said Grimes.
The data laid out for county commissioners offered an overview of their zoning options in deciding how many dispensaries to permit, where to locate them and what conditions to apply, such as hours of operation and distance from schools, churches and day care centers.
Some restrictions — aimed at reducing loitering — prompted a query from Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey.
“Are you saying people who are really sick go loitering outside these buildings?” she said. “Is this unfounded hysteria or based in factual experience?”
Grimes said there was a bit of both.
“People have a lot of concerns,” she said. “People have a fear of the unknown. Not knowing, they want to make sure none of these things occur. I think that’s where the regulations are coming from.”
On the financial side, the economic impact to state and local governments goes beyond a head count on patients. There will be permanent jobs in the industry, construction jobs to build cultivation facilities and dispensaries. Consultants, attorneys and accountants also will be hired.
There will be security jobs and businesses that supply cultivation sites with fertilizer, pots, containers and other materials. The county’s utility tax revenues could get a boost from facilities that use high levels of energy to grow cannabis.
And, as a tourist destination, Florida could benefit from accepting visitors’ out-of-state medical cards for medical marijuana purchases.
Grimes said Florida is predicted to rank second in the country for such sales, potentially reaping $2 billion to $3 billion annually by 2025.
“The economic impact of medical marijuana could grow exponentially when you consider our tourist industry,” she said.
Some cities and counties already have made choices in how to deal with medical marijuana.
The City of Cocoa Beach, for example, would allow dispensaries in general commercial zones with conditions, such as 1,000-foot distance from schools. Hillsborough County would allow them in all districts with retail uses, as long as they meet state regulations on operations.
A significant issue for county commissioners is whether to hold public hearings on each application or to process applications administratively.
With a favorable vote on Nov. 8, Grimes said Pasco could find as many as 100 applicants or more lining up for permits.
A Quinnipiac University poll in May found 80 percent of Florida’s voters support expanding medical marijuana uses.
County commissioners recently extended a moratorium on the growth, manufacturer and production of cannabis – from which medical marijuana is derived – until Dec. 31, to allow time to craft regulations in the event the referendum passes.
Because of the confusion of how the state will proceed, Grimes and Massey suggested that the county consider another, shorter extension of the moratorium.
It could take months for the state’s Department of Health to issue its regulations, if the referendum is approved. Legislators also could weigh-in during their 2017 session.
But, Grimes said, “At that point in time, I think you’ll be better able to adopt regulations that take into account facts you know exist.”
County commissioners praised the attorneys’ presentation, but expressed disappointment that the workshop was limited to a legal review.
“I’m frustrated right now,” said Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore.
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Wells also said he expected greater participation. “I just think we all can be educated,” he said.
Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said staff would need more guidance on the matter, if commissioners wanted a workshop on the advantages and disadvantages.
“Pros and cons (of medical marijuana) are not what is in the purview of the board,” she said. Rather, the issue will be decided by the state’s voters.
Though public workshops don’t typically allow public comment, county commissioners waived the rule. They also said another workshop might be needed.
A handful of people spoke in favor of medical marijuana. No one spoke in opposition.
Garyn Angel, owner of a botanical extraction company known as Magical Butter, said plant-based medicine is healthier than manufactured pills.
“There should not be a stigma to getting medicine that works for you, especially from low-level THC. This will not get you high. Let’s make people healthy naturally.”
Published September 28, 2016