While Florida’s state constitution now includes an amendment legalizing medicinal marijuana, Gulf Coast patients for the most part are still waiting for their first legal toke. Local jurisdictions throughout the region have put in place moratoria on clinics and dispensaries opening in the Sarasota-Manatee area until zoning issues can be worked out, and state regulators continue to argue with the crafters of the voter referendum approved in November. In many ways, the battles that have delayed passage of legal weed in Florida—children’s access, gateway drugs, et cetera—continue to stall countertop transactions.

For their part, local officials promise they don’t want to obstruct a legal industry from doing work in the region. “We have people looking at what’s happened throughout the country,” says Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin. “Over half the states now have medical marijuana.” He expects medical marijuana ultimately to become a valued and welcome business in the state but says that will only happen if best practices are followed. In some of those states where medical marijuana is legal, like California, dispensaries infamously started popping up in blighted areas alongside liquor stores instead of in health clinics.

That means little to the people who, for years, dealt with the criminal elements of weed or who illegally grew marijuana plants in their own homes. “Being afraid of this is not going to stop what [government officials] want to stop,” says Cathy Jordan, a Parrish ALS patient who fought for 20 years to get pot legalized for medical use. “They can’t continue to be afraid.”

Zoning Out

When voters filled in a bubble in November in favor of Amendment 2, many assumed the matter would be settled by morning. Some 6.5 million voters cast ballots in favor of the amendment, 71.3 percent of votes cast and more than enough to exceed the 60-percent threshold. But while the political victory was clear, it didn’t mean doctors could start writing prescriptions for Sticky Icky the next day.

Regulations still needed to be crafted. Clinics would need to be authorized and opened. The pure logistics of getting a legal business up and running would inevitably slow the process down. And many jurisdictions have put in place measures to prevent a flood of permit requests coming into building services before anybody knew what the true regulatory landscape would look like.

“We don’t want to have to go back and amend an ordinance that might be in conflict with the state,” says Fred Goodrich, a planner with Manatee County Building and Development Services. He noted that just because a business can legally operate in the state of Florida, doesn’t mean it can do so wherever it pleases. Florida statute, for example, prohibits the sale of alcohol within 100 yards of a church or within 200 yards of a school. Pain management clinics must be registered with the state and affiliated with an accredited medical school. 

The primary concern among local planners is that clinics will open in Manatee County, by which time a new set of state regulations will come down that bars operation in certain locations. But local leaders may also want to put in place zoning requirements that govern dispensaries, a type of business that, up until now, has never been included in any commercial category. So should a dispensary be allowed to open beside a rehabilitation center? Should the drug be cultivated in agricultural areas adjacent to grade schools? On top of those kinds of questions, add simple regulations on building size requirements, required equipment, state oversight, et cetera and planners see a lot of issues that need to get zoned out before permits start being given out for businesses.

Manatee officials put a stay in place in December, but many governments in the region did so in advance of the election anticipating passage. The cities of Sarasota and Venice did so in October and the City of Bradenton in November. Sarasota County has kept a moratorium in place since 2014, before a prior medical marijuana amendment appeared on the ballot and failed to win passage.

Harshing the Mellow

But the fact that this issue came so close to passage two years ago has pro-legalization activists upset that so little took place in anticipation of the change in the law. Jordan doesn’t understand how government officials can claim they don’t want to stop dispensaries from opening but have done so little since putting freezes in place. “They have known for two years that this could happen,” she says.

She also notes that federal regulations already put certain restrictions into place, and while a new administration in Washington leaves questions about future enforcement in the air, she says counties can operate under the rules that have been used for years. A dispensary can’t be located within 1,250 feet of a school per federal rule, for example, a much greater distance than required for the legal sale of recreational alcohol. “They are waiting for this when they can do something now,” Jordan says. It’s a personal issue to Jordan, who credits smoking marijuana with her relatively good health. While she remains wheelchair-bound and her speech badly slurs, ALS patients usually die within a few years of diagnosis—Jordan has survived more than 20 with the condition. She and her husband, Bob, have suffered public scandal and legal conflict over the drug. In 2014, a realtor selling a nearby home placed a call to the Sheriff’s Office reporting that electrical cords were running into the Jordan’s property, a sign of a growing operation. Deputies showed up and an argument soon ensued. “I wasn’t very polite,” recounts Bob.  Stating he wouldn’t let police search his home without a warrant, he recalls a more civil interaction later that day with members of the drug enforcement unit. The Jordans surrendered the plants and cuttings they were using to grow their own pot, and deputies left without searching the home for any already cultivated marijuana.

Deputies would say the 23 seized plants were worth $1,700 a piece, despite 20 being only cuttings. Bob Jordan faced drug charges. At one point, he turned down a plea deal to serve five years, deciding he’d rather take his chances at a jury trial, where he might be sentenced to a much longer term. But that trial never happened. The Jordans instead were awarded a rare “medical necessity” exception because no other drug is available to treat ALS. The couple remains one of a handful in the state legally allowed to grow marijuana for their own use, but they still cannot travel with it or use it outside their own home.

The experience is part of why Jordan has been frustrated at the slow development of rules to govern medical marijuana use. She chaired the Florida Cannabis Action Network until last year, and in that time spoke to many lawmakers who, while ready to support cannabis extracts, still don’t want people smoking marijuana and won’t let people cultivate it in their own homes.

Slow Trails

Jodi James, executive director of the Florida Cannabis Action Network, balks whenever the subject of further regulations on medical marijuana arises. “If people read our amendment, I don’t know how we could put more restrictions on this than we have right now,” she says. When Amendment 2 was crafted, it included the requirement that medical professionals be involved in both the prescription and dispensing of marijuana for use as medicine. Minors can only use the drug with parental consent. It also allowed for the state to restrict how many patients someone can prescribe marijuana to each year, a provision to counter accusations raised that the prior amendment would have allowed drug dealers to simply become licensed dispensers and start selling the drug to recreational users with no limitations or oversight.

Todd Beckwith, marketing director for Alt-Med, a company already cultivating marijuana in Arizona for medical use, has watched the Florida political process closely and says there is plenty of anxiety about the legislation being considered this year. In advance of session, lawmakers were considering a lottery system for licenses and limits as harsh as one dispensary per 50,000 residents. There are seven businesses in Florida now licensed to sell the marijuana extract Charlotte’s Web; Alt-Med is not among those, having decided the infrastructure needed to serve the limited market for that drug made no sense. But that means there are now only seven currently licensed companies to serve an estimated 450,000 potential patients in the state. Arizona, Beckwith notes, has about 125 licensed dispensers to serve around 125,000 patients. “You can see where the potential challenge is,” he says.

As James speaks with state lawmakers and regulators now, her goal is to make sure anyone who wants to try marijuana to treat an ailment doesn’t first have to use a number of other unproven and potentially unhelpful treatments first. “A win for us is when folks can use cannabis as a first option and not a last resort,” she says. So far, the network has not been especially pleased with state response. The Florida Department of Health issued guidelines in January leaving it to the Florida Board of Medicine, not individual physicians, to determine if patients qualify for medical marijuana.

While many in the activist class would like to see lawmakers allow citizens to grow marijuana at home, as the Jordans are allowed to do now, Beckwith notes that was never included in the Amendment 2 language, and business interests in medical marijuana are preparing for strict requirements. Alt-Med has been winning awards for the high safety standards and quality controls on its facilities in Arizona, and Beckwith boasts his is the only company ready to do business in Florida that will bring a “proven business model” and should be able to meet any licensing requirements. “But a final rule has not been agreed upon that will dictate the timing and who will be able authorized to grow marijuana and dispense it,” he says. Leaders like Barwin don’t want to wade further into that debate than they have to, but say the continuing state of flux in regulations is precisely why they don’t want to begin issuing business permits until the smoke clears. Planners need a grasp of state rules, Barwin says.

Barwin actually served as city manager of Ferndale, MI when medical marijuana was legalized in that state. In that state, regulators eventually allowed for individuals to grow marijuana and serve up to five other individuals, and local jurisdictions had to manage certification and oversight processes.

While complicated, the experience left Barwin optimistic about marijuana ultimately having a positive impact on the economy and community, but doesn’t want to see the problems that some of the states that were early adopters of medical marijuana experienced. Before marijuana was legalized recreationally in Washington and California, there were struggles between federal authorities and dispensaries pushing the boundaries of the law. Barwin wants to avoid such conflict here. Dispensaries also would turn up in areas where cities were trying to spur redevelopment, and the drug shops seemed about as useful in those areas as zoning new dive bars and tattoo parlors.

“What we are going to have to do is tailor this to our local geography,” he says. He hopes to start doing that as soon as this spring. The Manatee referendum is set to expire by summer; by then, local governments look to have it sorted out where patients can get a prescription and where they can grow or buy the drug individually.