DUNEDIN — Lawmakers gave local governments two options after Floridians voted overwhelmingly to legalize medical marijuana in 2016.
They could ban dispensaries from opening altogether or approve them under the same zoning rules that apply to pharmacies. Many cities enacted moratoriums on new dispensaries while they decided which route to take.
The city of Dunedin is now exploring a rare work-around. After 17 months under a moratorium, City Manager Jennifer Bramley is preparing an ordinance that, if approved, would ban pharmacies downtown and in the Causeway area.
The idea is to prevent dispensaries from taking root in the city’s main economic centers in case the state later legalizes recreational marijuana, Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said.
"We don’t want to ban it from our city altogether, we just want to make sure with all these unknowns we’re smart enough to protect these areas," said Bujalski, who proposed the approach. "We can always change it back to allow pharmacies back in."
Casey Cook, senior legislative advocate for Florida League of Cities, said he is not aware of a city banning pharmacies in order to block dispensaries like Dunedin is considering. But this year, the Sarasota City Commission voted to differentiate zoning rules between free-standing pharmacies and retail pharmacies like CVS, allowing dispensaries only where free-standing pharmacies are zoned, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.
Tampa Bay has 11 medical marijuana treatment centers in Clearwater, Largo, New Port Richey, Palm Harbor, St. Petersburg and Tampa. Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and several Pinellas County beach communities have voted to ban dispensaries.
As of June 8, about 120,350 patients have signed up through the Florida Department of Health to receive medical marijuana for a list of qualifying illnesses since the registry opened in 2016.
Following the statewide vote in November 2016, Dunedin enacted a 180-day moratorium on dispensaries in January 2017 to see how the state’s rules would play out.
When the Legislature in June 2017 gave cities only the two options, the city extended its moratorium through the end of 2017. In hopes that lawmakers would address complaints from cities that they weren’t allowed to write their own rules for dispensaries, the Dunedin City Commission voted a third time to renew a moratorium through June 30.
But no action was taken on medical marijuana in the 2018 Legislative session, renewing the perennial debate over how much authority communities should have to write laws for their cities.
"I think Tallahassee really blew this or there’s some very specific intent, one or the other," Vice Mayor John Tornga said.
The commission will vote Thursday whether to extend its moratorium a fourth time through Nov. 30 while city staff starts the three-month hearing process needed to ban pharmacies from downtown.
Bramley supported banning future pharmacies because she said none have shown an interest in opening in downtown to date. Two pharmacies exist in the Causeway area.
Tornga and Commissioner Heather Gracy expressed hesitancy at sacrificing a potential pharmacy in downtown in order to block dispensaries from the district, especially as the city’s $50 million downtown gateway project is in the planning stages and the city works to advance walkability for residents.
Commissioner Maureen Freaney noted the ban could be temporary and later reversed if state lawmakers address marijuana rules next year.
"I am 100 percent behind medical marijuana," Freaney said. "The issue is we were ready to put a medical marijuana dispensary in our city and put rules around that, and the state stepped in and mandated the exact way we have to do that. … I think it is invasive in our rights as a home rule community."
State Sen. Jeff Brandes said he intends to reintroduce in 2019 a version of the legislation he proposed this year that would have given cities more flexibility over dispensaries. He also wants to eliminate a mandate that requires any company selling marijuana to also grow, process, transport and dispense the product.
Brandes said blocking companies from focusing on only one aspect, such as growing or transporting, has created "cartels" in the state.
"There’s so many glaring problems in Florida’s medical marijuana law today," Brandes said Monday. "It’s clear the law isn’t working for patients in Florida."
Jake Bergmann, president of Surterra Holdings, which has seven dispensaries in the state, said allowing cities to put limits on where dispensaries can go will only hurt patient access.
He said concerns about medical marijuana dispensaries bringing the vibe of a "pot shop" to a downtown are unfounded. Most dispensaries are designed to look like medical offices or spas.
Bergmann said much of the battle is in the stigma on marijuana, even though opioids sold in pharmacies are more dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64,000 people died in 2016 from drug overdoses, and opioids accounted for nearly two-thirds of those deaths.
"You have this situation where our product is actually safer than opioids," Bergmann said. "It would make more sense to ban pharmacies for selling opioids than medical marijuana dispensaries."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.