Legal marijuana causes headaches for local officials

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The seductive lure of neon flashing lights, explosions endangering workers and first responders, and bandits enticed by stockpiles of cash.

The parade of horribles seems endless for local government officials grappling with an anticipated "green rush" in Florida after voters in November overwhelmingly approved a measure legalizing medical marijuana for hundreds of thousands of patients with debilitating conditions.

More than two dozen counties —- and about four dozen cities —- have enacted moratoriums temporarily banning medical marijuana dispensaries from opening, and many more are considering measures to regulate the industry.

While marijuana is already legal in the state, a 2016 law restricted possession and sales of "full-strength" cannabis to terminally ill patients. The medical community is divided on whether doctors are now legally allowed to register patients who are eligible under November's Amendment 2 —- a much broader class of patients —- into a statewide database that gives patients the ability to obtain marijuana from dispensaries.

About 2,000 patients are registered in the database, but that number is expected to eclipse 500,000 before the end of the year, according to Florida Department of Health estimates.

"This is coming to a city or a county where you live very soon," state Office of Compassionate Use Director Christian Bax told a packed audience of more than 350 elected officials, industry representatives and hangers-on Saturday at the Florida Association of Counties Medical Marijuana Summit near Orlando.

Bax laid out a potential Pandora's box of evils local governments can expect to encounter as Florida's marijuana industry —- potentially one of the largest in the nation —- ramps up.

"You're going to have people who think marijuana is just legal. You're going to see people who think they can just grow it in their backyard. You're going to see people who think that, because they've been ordered (it) by a doctor, they can consume or over-consume and get behind the wheel of a car," Bax said.

Bax always predicted that "gray markets" would begin to pop up.

"You're going to see people who are at best confused and at worst are doing something inappropriate and … hanging a shingle or attempting to hang a shingle without any kind of licensure or approval," he said.

The constitutional amendment, which went into effect last month, gives the Department of Health six months to craft rules to implement the measure and another three months to put the rules into effect —- an expedited timeline for state rulemaking, Bax frequently points out.

This week, health officials began holding a series of public hearings across the state on the proposed rules. And state lawmakers are also considering legislation to implement Amendment 2. Bills will be considered during the session that begins next month.

While some county commissioners left Saturday's day-long event feeling reassured about the nascent marijuana industry's imprint on their turf, others remained skeptical.

Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said she learned at the meeting Saturday morning that a medical marijuana dispensary would soon open in Bradenton, one of the few cities in her county. Manatee County in December approved a six-month moratorium on retail marijuana operations, but most county moratoriums don't prevent cities from allowing dispensaries.

"They did not have to go through a public hearing. They just had to go through permitting in the city of Bradenton," DiSabatino told The News Service of Florida.

The downtown location is worrisome because, DiSabatino said, it's near to a one-stop center where homeless people can receive meals and medical treatment and is just a few blocks away from a Pittsburgh Pirates training center.

The Bradenton marijuana dispensary will be one of several locales operated by Trulieve, one of a handful of "dispensing organizations" licensed by state health officials to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana products.

Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers told The News Service the Bradenton dispensary was approved before the county passed its moratorium.

DiSabatino is among a growing number of local officials banking on the state Legislature to implement regulations regarding Amendment 2, which received more than 71 percent approval from voters in November.

Meanwhile, the local moratoriums —- temporary bans on permitting and zoning for dispensaries —- are intended as status quo placeholders while officials wait for lawmakers, or the Department of Health, to impose new rules.

"I don't know that there's that many cities that are hardcore against it. A lot of them are in the sense of, if we've got to have it, that's fine, but we want to make sure they're in the areas where it's safe, away from traffic, away from schools and all that sort of stuff," Florida League of Cities assistant general counsel Ryan Padgett said recently. "This isn't a CVS or Walgreens. (Dispensaries) are in a different ball game. And a lot of people are trying to distinguish what category we put these in."

Powerful odors, fire hazards —- a number of volatile chemicals can be used in enclosed spaces to process the cannabis products —- and traffic congestion are among the issues local officials are concerned about in an industry that state lawmakers have said they will not tax because it is a medicine.

"It's not any one thing, but it's kind of that drip, drip, drip, drip, drip that has a lot of cities concerned," Padgett said. "We're going to have to do all this extra stuff to deal with this. That's going to take resources and somebody's going to have to pay for it."

While most county officials view the entree of legal marijuana in their communities with trepidation, others have a more blase —- or even welcoming —- approach.

Alachua County achieved notoriety decades ago for a potent strain of marijuana known as "Gainesville Green." The county is now home to two dispensing organizations, licensed by the state to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana.

County commissioners not only rejected a recent recommendation by staff to impose a moratorium on dispensaries, local officials also did away with a sign that once greeted visitors at the county line by advertising a "zero drug" tolerance policy.

The new signs now extol Alachua as a place "where nature and culture meet."

As in other communities, county officials are being inundated with requests from potential businesses seeking information about zoning and other restrictions, county attorney Michele Lieberman told attendees at Saturday's meeting.

A potential marijuana business operator requested information about the county's zoning, Lieberman said.

The unidentified company sought the data before its competitors could grab up all the "good locations," it said.

"Ours will be very classy," the letter read.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, told the crowd this weekend that lawmakers don't plan to keep counties and cities from imposing their own regulations or zoning on the marijuana industry.

Because the Constitution now requires the public to have access to medical marijuana, moratoriums could be challenged if they keep patients from getting treatment.

"In looking at some of the different proposals where a community is going to be forced to choose between a certain number (of dispensaries) or is explicitly authorized to ban locations in their communities, then we do need to have a conversation about access," Rivers said.

She and other industry executives are trying to work with local officials to resolve concerns about the numbers of dispensaries and where they are located.

"We suggest cautious regulation to assist law enforcement and local elected officials, such as … setbacks from schools and places of worship," said Nikki Fried, a consultant for the Green Solution, based in Alachua County.

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