Jurisdictions Sort Zoning Out on Medical Pot



While Florida voters in November approved the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, local jurisdictions are taking it easy prepping rules for dispensaries to operate on the Gulf Coast. Moratoria have been put in place throughout Florida while officials await direction from the Florida Department of Health and potential action for the Florida Legislature.

Manatee County Commissioners this month voted to put in place a six-month ban on permitting weed facilities, making it just the most recent government in the region to do so. Sarasota and Venice city officials approved similar measures in October and Bradenton did so in November. They were just the most recent, and some governments still have bans in place dating back to 2014, when a similar state referendum on medical marijuana failed. But leaders stress the bans are all temporary, just until the state gets its act together on its own rules and regulations.

“We don’t want to possibly 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. While voters favored legalizing marijuana, there remain issues about where it can be grown and sold. Should a dispensary be allowed to open beside a rehabilitation center? Should the drug be cultivated in agricultural areas adjacent to schools? On top of that kind of question, 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 issued for businesses.

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin has previously worked in other jurisdictions sorting out the issue, but he has seen places like California zone dispensaries only in blighted areas, creating more problems than positive impact. While he worked in Ferndale, MI, a medical marijuana dispensary was permitted then shut down by the sheriff. Sarasota has already had three business owners approach this jurisdiction about opening here, and Barwin wants a smoother process. “We have people looking at what’s happened throughout the country,” he says. “Over half the states now have medical marijuana.”

Sarasota’s moratorium lasts until July, and Barwin expects the Department of Health will have rules on what treatments can legally be prescribed marijuana for therapy. He anticipates the Legislature will weigh in with its own rules this spring. But the biggest issues will surround zoning, Barwin says. Decisions on whether dispensaries belong in shopping malls, industrial districts or mixed-use structures downtown will likely be determined in local ordinances. “We have to tailor everything with our local geography,” he says.

On November 8, a constitutional amendment allowing use of  marijuana for debilitating medical conditions passed in Florida with 71.32 percent of the vote. In Sarasota, 70.4 percent backed the measure, and in Manatee, it won 69 percent support. Amendments need 60 percent support to pass.

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