Sarasota Considers Ban on Dispensaries



As businesses hoping to enter Florida’s medical marijuana industry await regulatory decisions from the Florida Department of Health, one of the most prominent municipalities on the Gulf Coast today will vote whether to ban dispensaries within the city limits. Sarasota City Commissioners will decide today whether to allow businesses selling marijuana to operate similar to pharmacies or whether to demand the work be conducted outside of city limits.

“There won't be a lack of opportunity for people in need to get marijuana,” says Police Chief Bernadette DiPino. “It will be available regionally and people can drive and get it themselves. The biggest thing is it can delivered. But there are a lot of safety and criminal-related things associated with dispensaries that really need to be ironed out.”

The Florida Legislature in special session this year approved state rules for dispensaries, months after voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for debilitating medical conditions. The referendum won support from 71.3 percent of voters statewide, and 78 percent of voters in the city of Sarasota supported the amendment.

But the city put in place a moratorium on dispensaries until state regulations could be enacted, and City Attorney Robert Fournier, based on lawmakers’ actions, recommends the ban become permanent. That’s because commissioners won’t be allowed to put in place zoning restrictions to prevent dispensaries from opening in certain commercial districts. Because of an “all or nothing” choice in state law, “the legislature has not chosen to leave it entirely to local governments to determine what would work best within their jurisdictions,” Fournier wrote in a memo to commissioners.

For example, he notes the city could not require a distance of 100 feet or greater from residential property, could not require a distance from houses of worship or put restrictions on what times a dispensary could do business. Officials also couldn’t prohibit the installation of a drive-up window on a dispensary. Language in the state amendment does allow for cities to impose a requirement for dispensaries to be separated by 500 feet from schools. 

DiPino says medical marijuana transactions will be a cash-only business because federal law still lists marijuana as an illegal narcotic, meaning federally insured banks can’t allow check transactions. State law says anywhere in town where a pharmacy can operate, including downtown, the north trail and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, would be open grounds for a dispensary to do business. 

Commissioners will consider an ordinance banning dispensaries in the city limits at a 6pm regular meeting today.

Right now, medical marijuana companies are still awaiting rules on licenses. The state will allow 17 licensed companies to sell medical marijuana at up to 25 dispensaries, but restrictions could be imposed as soon as today on how many such dispensaries will be allowed in each region of the state.

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