By DOTTY NIST
With the expiration of a partial 90-day moratorium on applications for medical marijuana dispensaries, Walton County has approved its first ordinance regulating these dispensaries.
The measure applies to the unincorporated area.
The approval took place at a public hearing in conjunction with the May 23 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Action by the Florida Legislature in 2016 had legalized the cultivation, production, and dispensing of “medical cannabis” to “eligible patients” as defined by Florida Statutes, and in November 2016 there was a decision by Florida voters to amend the Florida Constitution to legalize cultivation, production, and dispensing of the substance for a broader population of eligible patients (Amendment 2). In Walton County, voters had favored Amendment 2 by more than 70 percent. Dispensing of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
After learning from that there were currently no criteria in the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) for location of medical marijuana dispensaries, on Feb. 11 the BCC approved a partial 90-day moratorium on applications for medical marijuana dispensaries, with the moratorium applying only to locations where alcohol sales are not allowed. This had been after hearing from a number of citizens, including physicians, who strongly opposed a moratorium on dispensaries and who urged for the county to move forward with approving these businesses.
At an April 11 BCC workshop on the topic, the commissioners and the public were provided with information on medical marijuana ordinances adopted by five Florida counties, including Alachua, Glades, Osceola, Sarasota, and Sumter, along with information on allocation of medical marijuana dispensaries in Florida. At the workshop, the commissioners continued to hear from citizens in favor of proceeding with the approval of dispensaries for the benefit of people with medical conditions.
The commissioners had reached consensus at the workshop on providing for allowing one dispensary to locate north of the bay and one south of the bay, with the possibility of increasing that number in the future. Legal counsel had been directed to draft an ordinance based on one existing in Osceola County marijuana, with the understanding of one dispensary north of the bay and one south of the bay, with basic design criteria to prohibit “cartoonish” images and advertising, and with provisions for a minimum distance from dispensaries similar to what is in effect for alcohol sales (distance from parks, day cares, playgrounds, etc.)
With the 90-day moratorium having expired the previous weekend, on May 23 the BCC took up the draft ordinance presented by Sidney Noyes, interim county attorney.
Noyes summarized that the ordinance would limit, per the BCC direction, the number of dispensaries to two, one north of the bay and one south of the bay, and that it would mirror, as directed, existing locational regulations for alcohol sales, prohibiting a dispensary from being approved within 1,320 feet of an established church or school. She noted that parks and day care centers had been included, as well, as part of the latter prohibition. In addition, Noyes said, the ordinance would disallow the use of cartoon or cartoonish characters on advertising signs for the businesses.
Among other provisions, the draft ordinance called for a three-member committee appointed by the county administrator or his designee to review applications for medical marijuana dispensaries.
For the first time, at the May 23 public hearing the BCC received public comments indicating serious concern in connection with the approval of dispensaries and in a couple of cases clear opposition.
James Hurley, identifying himself as county resident and member of the law enforcement profession and the Walton County Prohibition Coalition, thanked the commissioners for their work on the ordinance. He made a number of suggestions for incorporating additional restrictions into the ordinance, among those adding youth serving centers and recreational centers to the list of locations from which dispensaries would have to be separated by at least 1,320 feet.
Referencing ordinance requirements for dispensary operators to prepare curriculum and lesson plans to educate county students on the difference between the use of medicinal and recreational marijuana, Hurley called for the curriculum and lesson plans to instead be developed by health care professionals and the school nurse program in order to guard against bias—and for these educational programs to be funded by the medical marijuana industry through a trust fund.
He also called for the ordinance prohibitions on cartoon and cartoonish advertising be expanded to disallow free promotional items from being distributed by the businesses.
Two local ministers, Ben Barton and R.W. White, weighed in on the ordinance, with Barton stating, “I oppose the ordinance completely.”
Barton told the commissioners that alcohol and drugs destroy families. “We need to preserve the innocent,” he said.
District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson responded that the purpose of the ordinance is to “control the sale of medical marijuana,” and that without the county establishing regulations the sale of the substance could take place at any location. The ordinance is aimed at restricting dispensaries’ contact with children and at ensuring medical rather than recreational use of the substance, he explained.
Anderson pointed out that Amendment 2 had been approved by voters statewide and by a large percentage of Walton County voters. “It’s not that any of us necessarily agree with the amendment,” Anderson commented.
White observed that the problem with democracy is that the vote is “not always right,” apparently a reference to Amendment 2. He said he knew of Walton County residents who had moved to Colorado, had obtained marijuana even though they did not have the medical problems that it is used for, and whose lives had been destroyed as a result.
White urged the commissioners to put a lot of thought and prayer into their decision and to put the strictest regulations into their ordinance.
“Medical marijuana is to ease the pain and suffering of afflicted individuals,” Carolyn Zonia, a Santa Rosa Beach resident and emergency physician, commented. She pointed out that allowing the use of medical marijuana is not the same as legalizing the substance for use other than medical.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper also emphasized that what was being discussed was medical marijuana, not recreational marijuana as has been legalized in Colorado.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones commented that she had been hearing of an increase of crime and robberies associated with dispensaries, partly due to the business being required to operate on a cash basis. She wondered if the ordinance as presented was strict enough. Jones suggested that, since patients with prescriptions for medical marijuana could obtain it by mail, one dispensary centrally located in Walton County might be sufficient.
Anderson moved for approval of the ordinance, with direction for staff to consult with Hurley in order to identify additional provisions, as discussed, to be considered for addition to the ordinance, with those proposed revisions to be brought before the BCC at a future meeting or meetings.
The motion was approved unanimously.
The approved ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries may be viewed on the Walton County website at the link:
http://walton.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=8d68a411-6ec3-4e8a-b664-82aa34119019.pdf or information on the ordinance is available from the Office of the County Attorney at (850) 892-8110.