story by Jeremy Morrison, illustration by Jarrod Goldman
Marijuana, Mary Jane, ganja, herb, reefer, weed, wacky-tobbacky. Whatever you call it, Escambia County’s commissioners have little familiarity.
“Hey, I’m not a Bill Clinton,” laughed Commissioner Wilson Robertson. “I’ve never smoked marijuana, I’ve never tried it, I’ve never taken a puff of it.”
But the commissioners will wade into the subject of pot this week as they consider a one year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. They do so against the backdrop of a 2014 state legislative effort to provide medical marijuana to a selectively small pool of patients finally evolving into a brick-and-mortar reality, and a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that could expand that pool of patients, and likewise the facilities serving them, exponentially.
“We need to take the time to be prepared,” said Commission Chairman Grover Robinson, contending that county staff needs a year to ascertain how best to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.
During the first of two public hearings on the moratorium two weeks ago, commissioners passed the measure unanimously without any member of the public present to speak on the issue. They also did so without much in the way of a briefing on the subject.
“I just don’t know enough,” said Commissioner Steven Berry a week after the vote, wondering why the county didn’t engage the topic prior to looking at a moratorium. “I would welcome a workshop on it, where we could learn about what has happened, what’s on the horizon.”
Commissioner Lumon May also questioned the need for the county to take a year to wrap their arms around how best to regulate dispensaries — “staff is not the expert” — and suggested perhaps they look elsewhere in the country, to locales that have dealt with the issue already.
“There’s been enough case studies across the country,” May said.
Commissioner Underhill said he was concerned that such a local effort could infringe on state law, that the moratorium could jeopardize legal access to medical marijuana for approved individuals.
“Whether we agree or not with the law, the legislative branch of the state of Florida has made a decision,” Underhill said.
That logic would also apply to any wider measure approved by voters this November, just a few months into the moratorium being considered.
“I can’t imagine elected officials standing in the way of what the voters want,” Berry said.
But Robinson contends that the moratorium is valuable, that the time is needed. He points to a dispensary planned for the city of Pensacola and already in the permitting process as a provider to serve local patients. And he says there are questions to be answered before Escambia dives into the medical marijuana landscape.
“I’m not saying I know what those answers are, but we should take the time to figure it out,” Robinson said, clarifying the intentions of the moratorium. “I don’t want to preclude anyone from doing what the law allows them to do.”
How to Squeeze THC into an LDC
The legalization of medical marijuana is nothing new. California did it twenty years ago and has since been followed by more than two dozen other states to varying degrees. More recently, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska voters have approved measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
It’s a topic that tends to come up when county officials from around the country get together for national conventions. Commissioner Robinson has been hearing about it for a few years.
The conversations don’t usually revolve around the politics, morals or economics of legalization. They pertain to the logistics.
“It’s not a question of whether it should be legal or not, they have never questioned that,” Robinson said, explaining that the officials typically bemoan their failure to focus more on zoning and permitting issues. “It’s not the drug itself, it’s the way they’ve allowed it to go through.”
This is why Robinson is requesting a moratorium on dispensaries, to afford more time for county staff to figure out a way to deal with this new industry.
“What I’m looking at is how you deal with marijuana in your LDC [Land Development Code],” the chairman said.
Two weeks ago, Robinson explained that the moratorium would give staff time to figure out permitting and zoning specifics, and stuff like allowable distances from schools and churches. And it would allow for county officials to confer with their cohorts around the state during a Florida Association of Counties gathering in the fall.
That doesn’t sound like the best plan to Commissioner Doug Underhill.
“I feel like we’re throwing in our towel before we even try,” the commissioner said. “We’ve had two years to put something together. Quite frankly, I think I could do it in about 30 minutes.”
True enough. Florida lawmakers did legalize a low-THC, high CBD — in other words, non-euphoric — type of marijuana in 2014, intended to aid a select group of patients, most notably children suffering from seizures. That same year a constitutional amendment which would have legalized more traditional marijuana — read high-THC, or euphoric — and made it available to a much broader population was narrowly defeated at the polls.
Escambia officials briefly dipped their toes into these waters at that time.
“We talked about this preliminarily a couple of years ago,” Robinson recalled, adding that the conversation fizzled after the ballot initiative’s failure. “Everyone kinda quit talking about the subject.”
The chairman notes that legalization of medical marijuana on a broader scale is likely an eventual inevitability that the county should have already tackled.
“We would have been better off if we’d kept the conversation going,” Robinson said. “What is clear is the measure is going to keep coming up every November until something happens.”
In addition to the immediate, the chairman is also looking to the future. A future that could one day include recreational marijuana in Florida.
“Once you begin to establish marijuana sales in your LDC you’re going to be stuck if something changes,” Robinson said. “If it goes recreational it is not a pharmacy. Just like alcohol it is a recreational pursuit.”
Across the country, local governments tend to look at medical marijuana one of two ways. As a medicine. Or, as a vice. And they regulate it accordingly.
Commissioner Underhill sees the former as logical in Escambia at this time.
“As long as [medical] is what we’re talking about, I say sell it in the CVS and Rite Aides — we didn’t have to have an ordinance when they came out with Cialis or any other drug,” the commissioner said, adding that the legalization of recreational marijuana would need to be handled differently and probably similar to the sale of alcohol.
Underhill said marijuana could easily fit into the county’s LDC by treating it as a medicine. He said he would be “arguing fairly strongly against the moratorium,” and questioned the need for the county to labor over the issue.
“The only reason this is a problem is because we want it to be a problem,” Underhill said.
Thoughts On a Landscape Adrift
Although Escambia’s commissioners are considering a moratorium which could effectively limit access to a legal substance — save for a lone dispensary planned within the limits of the city of Pensacola and treated as a pharmacy — they appeared to recognize the larger national trend where marijuana is concerned, with some offering nods of support toward its medicinal use.
May described himself as “an open minded kind of guy.” Robinson talked about the right of an individual to make their own “personal decisions.” Underhill cited the science supporting medicinal use and criticized efforts to withhold it from people in need.
“Denying that access to people, to a medicine that would help them, out of fear — a “Reefer Madness” kind of thinking — that’s silly,” Underhill said.
The issue of recreational marijuana, however, is a different story.
May said that the resulting tax revenue would be a plus, but also stressed the need to educate people about the dangers of “gateway drugs.” Underhill noted how he appreciated that “the United States has 50 state laboratories,” but predicted that states like Washington and Colorado will ultimately “rollback their embrace” and said he feels the use of marijuana has “a negative impact on your productivity and closes doors for you in the future.”
Commissioner Robertson is more dire. He points out west — toward the “nightmare out there” — and paints it as clouded territories that need to come to their senses. His rationale is rooted in his “moral convictions” and view that “as human beings we’re too weak.”
The commissioner looks to places like Colorado and is dismayed, not near ready for such an evolving landscape in Florida. Not near ready for a recreationally stoned citizenry in the Sunshine State.
“They smoke their lives away and feel happy and not have any cares or whatever,” Robertson marvels. “It’s crazy.”
The Escambia County Board of County Commissioners conducts the second and final public hearing regarding the medical marijuana dispensary moratorium at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 4, at the downtown governmental complex on South Palafox.