By DOTTY NIST
After hearing from half a dozen citizens, including two physicians, expressing opposition to a potential 240-day moratorium on growing, cultivating, processing, manufacturing, dispensing, and distributing medical marijuana (cannabis) and its retail and wholesale sale in Walton County, county commissioners have approved a shorter moratorium applying only to sale of the substance in locations where alcohol sales are currently prohibited.
The decision took place at a public hearing in conjunction with the Feb. 14 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Plans for the hearing had followed 2016 action by the Florida Legislature that legalized the cultivation, production, and dispensing of “medical cannabis” to “eligible patients” as defined by Florida Statutes—and a November 2016 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. In Walton County, voters had favored the latter amendment by more than 70 percent.
Dispensing of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
The BCC had voted to hold a hearing on the potential moratorium after learning from Mark Davis, county attorney, that there were currently no criteria in the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) for location of medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation sites.
Davis had recommended that Walton County consider imposing the moratorium as allowed by state law, which would provide for a period of 240 days or less within which the commissioners could examine whether they would develop criteria for location of these dispensaries and/or cultivation sites within the unincorporated area and, if so, would be able to amend the LDC for addition of these criteria.
At the Feb. 14 meeting, 22-year permaculture specialist and county resident Kat Provencher spoke on the long history of the cannabis plant for medicinal use and for clothing, including its growth and use by the nation’s founding fathers. “This is a plant…the history is phenomenal,” she said. Provencher stated that medical marijuana had been able to remedy seizures in children that over 20 different drugs had failed to stop.
“A moratorium is stalling the inevitable,” county resident Lynda Morse told the commissioners.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander responded that the BCC would adhere to the law in allowing medical marijuana in accordance with the decisions by the legislature and voters. The issue for the BCC, she noted, would be the locations where the substance would be dispensed and “looking out” for the public with children.
Davis said he would envision during the proposed moratorium a workshop or series of workshops to determine whether the BCC would want to place some limits on medical marijuana and/or specify locations in connection with the substance. The purpose of the moratorium would not to be to stop medical marijuana from coming to Walton County, he stated.
Davis explained that in the absence of a moratorium anyone applying “tomorrow” would have the ability to put a medical marijuana dispensary in any commercial operations land use area.
District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper, who had attended a Florida Association of Counties Medical Marijuana Summit Feb. 3-5 in Orlando, commented that 20 counties are currently allowing the dispensing of medical marijuana. She indicated that this was something of a new topic for her as a U.S. Army veteran.
Nipper was of the opinion that the BCC would need some time to look at locations, etc., but not the 240-day moratorium period. She said the counties implementing the dispensing had set up requirements for dispensaries to be located at a distance from schools.
“Let’s get started on it,” urged District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson regarding the implementation process.
Point Washington resident Frank Day stated his agreement with Nipper and Anderson, pointing out that almost 72 percent of Walton County voters had indicated their desire for medical marijuana to be available in the county.
Rather than a moratorium, Day called for moving ahead with the workshops that Davis had referenced. He told the commissioners that they had a “good model” with their code provisions regarding locations permitted for sale of alcohol.
Don Riley, a physician, agreed with Day, saying that the time period for medical marijuana to be available should be as short as possible. People in pain that can be relieved by the substance should not have to wait “one second,” longer than necessary he commented.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman said that he had voted for the Constitutional amendment in November because he wanted to ensure the availability of medical marijuana for those needing it. He added that he wanted the BCC to take the time to ensure that the substance would be available in the proper locations. There would be time for additional public comment as the changes to the LDC discussed were being considered, Chapman reminded attendees.
Carolyn Zonia, a physician, told the commissioners that overdosing on pain medications has led to a reduction in life expectancies. Individuals quickly become addicted to these medications, he warned. “We need another option to offer patients,” Zonia emphasized. She urged the commissioners not to delay.
Davis brought up the option of adopting a moratorium applying only to locations where alcohol sales are not allowed. In that way, any applications related to other areas would be able to move forward, he reasoned.
Larry Jones, county administrator, noted that with that course of action the BCC would have the opportunity to expand allowable locations later if they so desired.
Day responded that he thought Davis and Jones had provided the solution. He also suggested that the workshops discussed would begin immediately with the restriction discussed in place.
Jones agreed and said that this had been his thought process.
Nipper commented that BCC action would need to be conditioned on the terms of the final bill on the issue that would be approved by the legislature.
Davis agreed that the latter condition would be necessary.
Nipper motioned for approval of the moratorium as discussed, applying to the locations where alcohol sales are prohibited, and for a 90-day period.
Day suggested that Nipper serve in a leadership role for the public process.
“I’d be honored,” she answered.
The motion was approved unanimously, with the moratorium period to begin immediately.
Information on the public workshops will be forthcoming.