NEW PORT RICHEY — The city has embarked on a three-month planning process to put out the welcome mat for medical marijuana dispensaries, and during that time may also tackle the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of pot.
The New Port Richey City Council held a work session Tuesday evening, the first in a series of meetings planned through July aimed at dealing with how to handle a possible influx of applications from companies looking to open medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. The meeting came as legislators in Tallahassee continue to work on regulations for dispensing medical marijuana after Florida voters passed Amendment 2 in November.
The council is under the gun to come up with zoning parameters for medical marijuana dispensaries after establishing a moratorium on such businesses in February in order to see what new laws come out of Tallahassee. The moratorium expires in August.
About a dozen supporters of medical marijuana spoke passionately during the work session of the scourge that prescription painkillers have wrought on the community and a safer way to treat serious illnesses using cannabis-based products. Others spoke of the need for local dispensaries to keep people from having to drive long distances and urged the council not to bury the businesses in industrial areas.
The council met the testimony with a welcoming tone, pointing out that an ordinance is already in place that would allow for medical marijuana dispensaries in commercially zoned areas, once the moratorium is lifted, though there are restrictions, such as being at least 500 feet from schools and churches.
Some on the council took it a step further, saying the city should look not only at places for dispensaries in commercial zones, which would mostly be on U.S. 19 and in the areas of Massachusetts Avenue and Congress Street, but also at possibilities with Morton Plant North Bay Hospital and the former Community Hospital site at Marine Parkway, which is in the running for a Veterans Affairs complex. Staffers were directed to come up with a map of specific locations for review at the council's May 31 work session.
"My inclination right now is that we ought to be treating this like any other medical facility," said Mayor Rob Marlowe.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Starkey agreed, saying dispensaries, which he prefers to call "wellness centers," will be professional medical facilities.
"We have to continue to think progressively on this council," Starkey said. "If we say we don't want dispensaries …, it is sending the wrong message. It's telling people they can't get medicine."
Starkey said he also wants the council to discuss decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, which his colleagues agreed should be debated. If that passed, New Port Richey would join Port Richey, which in September passed an ordinance allowing its police to issue citations to people with 20 grams or less of marijuana in lieu of arrest, if they are older than 18 and not committing any other simultaneous crime.