TAMPA — Medical marijuana dispensaries won't be able to operate near schools, bars or one another, but there won't be a limit on the number of marijuana businesses that can operate in Hillsborough County after all, commissioners decided Tuesday.
To the shock of even some colleagues, Commissioner Pat Kemp narrowly won support by a 4-3 vote to strip provisions that would have limited the number of dispensaries to 13 in all of unincorporated Hillsborough. She also won enough votes for an amendment that removed a point system for awarding the limited number of licenses, which heavily benefited a handful of medical marijuana businesses already licensed by the state.
"This is a giveaway right now to existing license holders," Kemp said. "I don't think we should be spending our taxpayer dollars to create this entire licensing scheme."
Commissioners ultimately voted 7-0 to approve the ordinance that enables medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in Hillsborough County with some restrictions.
Kemp's victory was applauded by dozens of medical marijuana advocates who spoke out during Tuesday evening's public hearing against the proposed limits as a way to restrict access and drive up prices.
The vote comes as the Florida Department of Health and the Legislature consider a large medical marijuana expansion following last year's statewide referendum that will allow more patients to be prescribed the drug. As it stands, only seven companies are permitted to grow or sell in the state. All of them were approved under the 2014 law allowing low-THC strains of marijuana for a limited pool of patients.
Under Hillsborough's proposed rules, dispensaries would have had 30 days to apply for a limited number of licenses — one for every 67,000 residents in unincorporated areas.
The approval period likely would have closed long before any decision about medical marijuana expansion is made in Tallahassee. That's 13 licenses, two of which have already been taken by companies that set up shop before commissioners approved a six-month moratorium on medical marijuana operations in October.
If Florida opens up medical marijuana to more companies or businesses, they likely would not have been be able to get licenses in Hillsborough County until the population increased. And because the application rules gave significant consideration to companies with existing operations, Florida's seven currently operating companies would have had a significant advantage.
But Kemp's amendment changed all that and ultimately means any marijuana business that gets approval from the state in the future can still set up shop in Hillsborough County.
They will still have to abide by new land-use restrictions commissioners approved Tuesday.
Under those guidelines, medical marijuana dispensaries must be at least 750 feet from schools, parks and other community gathering places, as well as any business that sells alcohol. Dispensaries will largely be relegated to the unincorporated area immediately north of Tampa International Airport, some parts of South Shore, just east of Orient Road in Tampa and south of Temple Terrace.
They also can't be within 750 feet of another dispensary.
Commissioner Les Miller, the lone dissent on the land-use vote, pleaded with his colleagues to wait until lawmakers and regulators in Tallahassee finalize their own rules for marijuana before enacting local policies. The outcome could pre-empt whatever Hillsborough County passed Tuesday, he warned.
"We're putting the cart before the horse," Miller said.
However, the majority of the board wanted to put policies in place before the county's moratorium expires in April.
"The Legislature is going to do what the Legislature is going to do," Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "I, for one, think we should show leadership on this issue and move forward today."
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.