by Jeremy Morrison
Still looking to put a year-long kibosh on local medical marijuana dispensaries, Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson is hoping his fellow commissioners have an appetite for the measure when they take it up on Thursday.
“I don’t think they’re thinking the whole thing, the whole picture,” Robinson said Tuesday, referencing an initial public hearing earlier this month, where the board seemed to pan the measure.
The chairman was not present during that hearing, where the rest of the board questioned the need for a year moratorium in order to make time for county staff to determine how best to regulate facilities that sold medical marijuana. Robinson is hoping he can steer the discussion back on track this week when the board holds the second and final public hearing on the matter.
“Before we get too far down this road, we need to have this conversation,” he said.
Currently, only a limited type of marijuana — a non-euphoric variety — is legal and available to a very select group of patients in Florida. Though that has been the case since 2014, dispensaries to service this group of patients — as well as a handful of licensed nurseries — are just now emerging on the landscape.
This summer, Escambia County began exploring the possibility of enacting a moratorium on facilities selling the newly legal medication. Robinson led this effort, explaining to his cohorts that the measure was also in anticipation of an initiative on the November ballot, which could legalize more traditional medical marijuana and open the doors to a much deeper pool of patients.
Other commissioners were hesitant to jump on board. They wondered why such facilities couldn’t be dealt with similar to pharmacies or establishments selling alcohol. And if a moratorium might be read as circumventing or delaying the will of the voters in the scenario that November’s ballot initiative passes.
This week, Robinson said that he had spoken with the county attorney and decided to alter the proposed moratorium. Whereas it did apply to all dispensaries, it would now not apply to those facilities licensed to sell the currently legal, non-euphoric variety of medical marijuana.
“But we’re going to have a moratorium on everything else,” Robinson suggested.
This new concept would effectively knock out anything resulting from the November ballot initiative, a constitutional amendment that requires 60 percent of the vote to pass.
“Put a moratorium in, in advance of Amendment 2 passing and giving us time to figure out what to do,” Robinson explained.
The chairman said that the moratorium wouldn’t really delay any local facilities by much, estimating that it would take state legislators a while to produce an implementation bill and make the new law official if voters approved it.
“Which means it’s going to be July of next year before anything happens,” he said.
Other commissioners, in particular Commissioner Doug Underhill, have argued that the county should simply absorb these new facilities into the county’s existing Land Development Code and treat them as pharmacies or, in the case of a down-the-road Colorado-esque recreational scenario, as an establishment that conducts alcohol sales.
Robinson thinks that’s shortsighted. He lists locales out West. Places like Colorado, where legalization of medical marijuana and eventually recreational marijuana led to a healthy number of dispensaries opening up.
“I don’t think we want to have it where it becomes a free for all and everyone puts up a retail shop,” the chairman said. “I think you need to have some parameters on it.”
The chairman expects the broader legalization of medical marijuana, and the growth in dispensaries that accompanies such a change, to gain that 60 percent approval of the Florida electorate. If not this November, then some future November down the road. This multi-election cycle effort is approaching greatest hits status on Florida’s ballots, with 2014’s effort missing the mark by a few narrow percentage points.
“Over time it’s going to pass. A majority of citizens favor it,” Robinson said. “It’s going to keep coming up until it passes. So, why don’t we just go ahead and have the conversation?”
The chairman plans to argue Thursday for the county to take the time to map out a way to accommodate medical marijuana facilities in the event they become more widespread. And he’s not just referring to dispensaries, where patients would purchase marijuana.
Robinson is looking a little farther down the road. He’s wondering how Escambia will handle the various facets of an industry that is currently only hinting at the possibilities.
“If it becomes a viable commercial activity, what do we want to be doing about growing?” Robinson asks. “Where do you think it needs to be grown? Where do you think it needs to be processed? Pharmacies don’t grow anything, pharmacies don’t process anything. Do we need to do it C-2, do you need to do Agriculture?”
The commissioners will weigh in on this subject during the second hearing for the potential moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries at the board’s regular meeting, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 18, at the Escambia County Governmental Complex. The public will also be given an opportunity to speak on the issue.
For related stories, see “Is Escambia’s Medical Marijuana Moratorium Half-Baked?” and “Hearing Evolves Into Medical Marijuana Community Forum.”