TAMPA — A limit on medical marijuana dispensaries passed the Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday, but it may not last long.
Commissioners voted to cap marijuana storefronts at one for every 44,800 residents in unincorporated Hillsborough, or 20 dispensaries. The new policy reverses a position adopted just three months ago, when commissioners decided not to limit licenses.
As the vote took place, reports emerged that the state House and Senate had finally reached an agreement on medical marijuana that, if approved, would override the commission vote.
Bills filed by both chambers Wednesday would prohibit localities from placing any limits on dispensing facilities.
The bills also say that counties can't restrict where medical marijuana can be sold, meaning dispensaries can open up anywhere a CVS or Walgreens can. That reverses another county ordinance approved earlier this year that relegated medical marijuana dispensaries to parts of Hillsborough far away from residential areas, schools and liquor stores.
If it passes, it would be the latest example of the state pre-empting local governments.
"So we just wasted two hours," Commissioner Sandy Murman stated matter-of-factly after the meeting as she was briefed by staffers on the latest from Tallahassee.
For months, county commissioners pushed ahead with new medical marijuana regulations despite repeated calls — including from among their own — to see what happens in Tallahassee before acting.
"I told you we should have waited," Commissioner Les Miller said from his office after Wednesday's meeting.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, shocked to learn about what had emerged during the special legislative session, nevertheless stood by his decision to bring the limits back up for a vote again.
"We should show leadership and take control of our own destiny," Hagan said.
Hillsborough isn't the only Tampa Bay government that could be pre-empted if lawmakers move forward with this compromise.
In February, Pasco commissioners capped the number of retailers of low-THC medical marijuana, approved by the Legislature in 2014, at two and said they must operate in industrial-zoned districts. The county previously approved a yearlong moratorium on dispensaries tied to the Amendment 2 medical marijuana referendum. That remains in effect until December.
Hillsborough's 6-1 vote came after commissioners heard from several residents who pleaded against caps, citing concerns about access for patients and lack of competition driving up prices.
Commissioner Pat Kemp, the lone no vote, also warned that the process for awarding the licenses — a point system that is weighted toward past experience and other factors like size of store — is sure to attract legal objection.
Kemp offered an amendment that would award a license to any state-approved grower that applies. She was rebuffed by her colleagues.
"I'm little surprised it's left to me to make the free-market argument," said Kemp, a Democrat. "We're picking winners and losers."
Other commissioners sided with residents who said they were concerned that this new industry needed strong regulation.
Miller successfully won a compromise to increase the cap on dispensaries to 20, seven more than a previous proposal.
The legislation moving forward in Tallahassee would allow communities to ban medical marijuana storefronts, but Hagan said that's not realistic.
And Hagan doubted that after months of stalemate on medical marijuana, lawmakers had agreed on new terms that would overturn what commissioners approved Wednesday.
"I can't imagine that will ultimately pass the Legislature," he said.
But Murman, a former state lawmaker who, like Miller, wanted the county to wait, feigned surprise at the latest developments.
Said Murman: "The state knows best."
Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.