Limits on marijuana dispensaries get new life in Hillsborough after lobbying from grower

Commissioner Stacy White has spearheaded Hillsborough’s medical marijuana efforts.
Commissioner Stacy White has spearheaded Hillsborough’s medical marijuana efforts.
Published June 4, 2017

TAMPA — Call it a re-doobie.

Just three months after declaring Hillsborough County open to boundless medical marijuana businesses, commissioners now may put a cap on how many dispensaries can set up shop.

Such a reversal so soon after setting policy is rare for the commission. And the about-face comes amid an intense lobbying campaign by a state-approved medical marijuana company that would benefit greatly from less competition in one of Florida's largest markets.

Those hoping to limit dispensaries have pushed for a re-vote Wednesday — as lawmakers consider a special session for medical marijuana and a few weeks before state health regulators must hand down new rules, both of which could dramatically open Florida to more growers.

If approved, Hillsborough would allow just 13 dispensaries. Those already operating would have a significant advantage: Licenses would be awarded on a point system that heavily favors experience operating here.

"This all just seems like going to an extreme to the benefit of monopolies," said Commissioner Pat Kemp, who led the charge against limiting dispensaries when commissioners first voted on the regulations March 7.

But a growing number of commissioners are saying capping new businesses will protect patients and residents against a nascent — and still technically illegal — industry.

"This is our community," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, one of several board members whose opinion has shifted since March. "And safety is first."

• • •

Lobbying records and emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show opponents of caps were gearing up for round two the day after the March vote.

Lobbyists for San Felasco Nurseries, one of the state's seven approved growers, huddled March 8 with several commissioners, including Stacy White, who had spearheaded the county's medical marijuana efforts, and Ken Hagan, who would ultimately request the re-vote on May 24.

The meetings were the continuation of a campaign that began in September. San Felasco lobbyists Beth Leytham and Todd Pressman have registered more than 60 meetings between county commissioners and staff in the past seven months.

For example: On Jan. 10, Leytham sent an email to senior assistant county attorney Johanna Lundgren. It included a two-page argument for why existing state growers should get first shot at dispensary permits.

She followed up with an email to Lundgren the next day with a new ordinance from Sumter County that limited dispensaries to one for every 67,600 residents, "which follows Osceola (County) closely," she said.

At the time, the county attorney's office was considering a list of ideas as it crafted Hillsborough's ordinance. Among items under consideration: hours of operation, signage restrictions and inspection protocols.

A dispensary cap was not on the list.

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But a month later, without any public direction from the commission, the county administrator's office put forth a draft that limited dispensaries to one for every 67,222 residents and created a point system for permits similar to the Sumter ordinance.

In an interview last week, Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher said the final ordinance mirrored Osceola and Sumter counties because they were the only examples, not because of outside influence.

Most other counties and cities are waiting to see what happens in Tallahassee before acting.

"That's what was available," Fletcher said. "This is all new."

• • •

Even as San Felasco Nurseries has lobbied for limits on dispensaries at the local level, it has pushed back against similar restrictions by the state.

During an April Senate committee hearing on medical marijuana, Jim McKee, a lawyer for the grower, pointed to a state Department of Health study that estimated nearly 2,000 dispensaries are needed to treat 440,000 potential patients.

Unincorporated Hillsborough County would need more than six times the allowed 13 dispensaries to meet that demand.

Ben Pollara, who managed the United for Care Campaign that led last year's successful state referendum to expand medical marijuana, said this should give commissioners pause.

"The renewed push by the cartels to limit medical marijuana retail in Hillsborough County is part of a duplicitous strategy to maximize profits while minimizing competition at the expense of patient access," he said.

Leytham said the company is simply advocating a "sensible, incremental regulatory approach" at the local level.

"This allows the community and the new industry to start off on the right foot, balancing patient access with the safety and welfare of everyone," she said. The county "can always add more dispensaries in the future."

Kemp said it's absurd to model after Osceola and Sumter counties. Their populations combined are half that of unincorporated Hillsborough.

Regarding the lobbying efforts for dispensary caps since the March vote, he said: "It certainly is a big and resolute switch."

Leytham and Pressman have contributed to the campaigns of White and Hagan during the medical marijuana debate.

White received $500 from Pressman two days before the Oct. 5 moratorium vote and another $1,000 from him and his business in April. Pressman and his associates gave Hagan $3,000 in April. Leytham and her associates gave $1,000 to White and $2,500 to Hagan in April.

Both commissioners are running for re-election in 2018. They've received contributions from Leytham and Pressman in the past.

"I keep campaigning and governing completely separate," White said.

Hagan said the donations are "negligible" compared to the money he has raised.

"Having lived through the pill mill crisis," he said, "I just feel very strongly that we do not want to potentially put ourselves in that position again."

Contact Steve Contorno at (813) 226-3433 or Follow @scontorno.