by Jeremy Morrison
With Escambia County commissioner’s having already decided to delay their vote on a year-long moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, Thursday night’s scheduled public hearing on the matter instead unfolded into a make-shift community forum on the overall issue.
“It’s a medical aid,” Justin Price, a local EMS technician, told the commissioners.
Price’s comments were in line with the rest of the night’s speakers — all of whom were against a moratorium — in that they painted medical marijuana as something Floridians should be granted access to. Price spoke about his mother-in-law, who suffers from epilepsy, and wondered why a 2014 law passed by the state legislature that legalized a non-euphoric variety of marijuana for a select group of patients has taken so long to materialize into available product.
“This is something that has the ability to possibly help,” Price said. “It’s already been two years.”
The trigger for the evening’s conversation was the moratorium concept, introduced by Commission Chairman Grover Robinson, who contended county staff needed the extra time to determine how best to incorporate medical marijuana dispensaries into the Land Development Code. An actual vote on the moratorium had already been scuttled during the morning agenda review session — an out-of-town Robinson requested the delay via a written letter, and the rest of the board, some of whom took issue with the concept, readily agreed.
Instead, the commissioners left the hearing on the evening agenda and used the opportunity to take a read on the community’s views on the subject.
“We’ll hear your opinions and we’ll know better how to act at that time,” Commission Vice Chairman Wilson Robertson said, referring to an eventual vote on the moratorium.
The opinions voiced to the commissioners were decidedly pro-medical marijuana. A number of the speakers relayed personal stories to better make their point.
“Most people don’t have six months, they don’t have a year,” said Alice Downs, delivering a message from an ill neighbor. “It’s just disgusting, she said, to ban this for another year, because marijuana is a plant and we need to think about that.”
Downs also talked about her own mother, who died of mesothelioma.
“It would have made that last year of her life vastly better than what we saw her go through,” she said.
Claude Gillette hammered that same message, stressing the value of medical marijuana for terminally ill patients.
“We’re not talking about some abstract idea with no consequences. Many people will die in one year from their illness,” he told the commissioners. “To deny or even postpone anything that could possibly enhance their life is nothing short of criminal.”
Commissioners appeared sympathetic to the speakers’ concerns.
“I can’t imagine our board is going to stand in the way or be an impediment to something that is essentially a compassionate care use,” said Commissioner Steven Barry, clarifying that the currently legal non-euphoric medical marijuana represented a “very narrow” market, and that the passage of a broader, more-traditional medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment may require more oversight — “then I think we’re probably going to end up with a discussion about a certain amount of feet from certain kinds of institutions, more akin to our beer and wine language.”
Much of the commissioners’ conversation centered on differentiating between non-euphoric marijuana, low in THC, and traditional medical marijuana, high in THC, and full-on recreational environments, such those brought on by voter initiatives in states like Colorado and Washington.
“Am I right to envision this as a prescription from a doctor that comes in the form of a pill,” asked Commissioner Robertson, referring to the currently available non-euphoric variety of marijuana.
“It doesn’t have the characteristics of making you high,” explained County Administrator Jack Brown.
“This is not a bag of weed,” elaborated Commissioner Doug Underhill. “What’s legal today comes in a vile, much like a vanilla extract. You could take 10 gallons of this stuff and if you could figure out how to smoke it, it would not get you high. It’s non-euphoric.”
Underhill also pushed county staff on the necessity of a year moratorium in order to deal with permitting and zoning issues. He argued that medical marijuana could easily be dealt with as the county currently handles either pharmacies, or more restrictively, alcohol sales.
“You handle 10 things more complex than this before lunchtime everyday, and that’s just on Perdido Key,” Underhill joked with Horace Jones, Escambia’s director of development services, inquiring if medical marijuana could be accommodated like a pharmacy within the LDC.
“If that’s the direction of this board, we can certainly proceed in that direction,” Jones said, estimating that it would take three to four months to accomplish.
Ultimately, the commissioners rescheduled the final public hearing on the moratorium Chairman Robinson brought forward until the board’s Aug. 18 meeting. It doesn’t appear to be passable, however, as even Commissioner Robertson — who previously appeared to have the most suspect view of medical marijuana, and adamantly trashes any prospect of recreational use — voiced his support of making medical marijuana available to patients under their doctor’s supervision.
Robertson noted that “my wife will wring my neck when I get home” and that “my good buddies and friends will shoot me,” but conceded that he believed doctors should be able to prescribe medical marijuana.
“It wouldn’t bother me if it was tomorrow,” Robertson said, contending that sometimes substances considered unconventional do hold medicinal value and illustrating his point with a story about his mother giving him nips of whiskey when he was sick as a child. “And she’d put a little bit of lemon and honey in it, and I tell you I didn’t look at it like whiskey, it was medicine and I’d drink it in a heartbeat.”