ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Amidst some confusion about the implementation of Amendment 2 at the medical marijuana workshop in St. Johns County on Thursday evening, county staff said a draft of potential zoning regulations could be presented to the commissioners by July.
The staff-led workshop was steered by Assistant County Attorney Paolo Soria, who spent the better half of an hour attempting to explain current state laws on medicinal cannabis to those in attendance. All of this being a response to an approved St. Johns County temporary moratorium on the sale and production of marijuana products that was passed in March.
The moratorium is slated to last up to 12 months with the possibility of an early repeal that is left mostly up to the St. Johns County commissioners. If land development regulations are not ready to be enacted in a year’s time, the board can also choose to extend the moratorium, unless otherwise ruled by a potential state law.
“This workshop is about where these retail facilities should be and what regulations should happen in St. Johns County,” said Soria.
Unlike alcohol, there is no current state provision that dictates where medical marijuana facilities can operate. Many counties in response to this have pumped the breaks and enacted similar moratoriums that will give local government municipalities more time to formulate regulations.
The State of Florida mandates that no business offering the on-site consumption of alcoholic beverages be located within 500-feet of any elementary school, middle school or secondary school, unless the county rules the location in question is promoting the “public health, safety, and general welfare of the community.”
St. Johns County has its own set of rules for the operation of alcohol beverage establishments, which include 1,000-foot buffers in regards to both schools and churches. Maps showing where these zones exist were placed in the room for all who attended the workshop to observe. Several concerned citizens were quick to remind Soria that marijuana is now prescribed medicinally, unlike alcohol and tobacco.
“I’m an elderly person,” Jan Miller said. “I’m 77-years-old and I want everybody to know it’s not just young hippies that are concerned about this. This crosses all barriers. It’s about pain management. It’s about health.”
Miller first witnessed the benefits of marijuana when her daughter was sick with leukemia 25 years ago. Miller says a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical Center was treating patients with marijuana to help counteract the effects of chemotherapy.
A resident of St. Johns County, Miller showed up to the workshop on Thursday to express her concerns with restrictions that have been placed on what she’s seen as a practical source of medicine for many years.
“I realize that you have to have rules and regulations to go by, but I don’t see why the businesses that would dispense marijuana as a medical entity, a drug, I don’t see why it should be any different than a pharmacy,” said Miller.
St. Johns County could be on a slippery slope by modeling the future land use and zoning regulations for a medical facility after preexisting alcohol laws. Good or bad, the path to approved legislation seems destined to include some sort of buffer as it applies to schools and possibly churches.
Special Projects Manager for St. Johns County Joseph Cearley said he spoke with the school district’s Growth Management Director Nicole Cubbedge, who expressed a desire to include a 1,000-foot buffer for schools in whatever regulations are put in place for future medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTC).
“They said they would be on board,” Cearley said. “So, I think if we were to keep it from schools, we would honor their wishes, because I don’t think they would support anything else.”
Much like current applicants for alcohol beverage establishments in St. Johns County, the initial recommendation is that all future MMTCs be required to file a special use permit with the Planning and Zoning Agency prior to the development of any land where a dispensary would be located. A discretionary approval process including a public hearing and performance standards on such things like parking, security, hours of operation and loitering would go hand-in-hand with this.
“Special use puts another hearing; puts another layer of transparency; puts another layer of public comment, public accountability and allows us to tailor that use to that area,” Soria said. “Everyone walks away happy.”
The alternative would require the Planning and Zoning Agency to rewrite preexisting zoning classifications to permit MMTC land usage in specified areas. This would be a more unrestricted approach that would save time on the opening of dispensaries, as a public hearing would not be required. Soria says this could be a bad thing though and could result in dispensaries being placed in “unsuitable areas.”
Ease of access to patients has been the common denominator in recent conversations, according to Soria. Whichever zoning process is chosen, Soria says it will resonate with recommendations state lawmakers and local law enforcement have made.
“What we are hearing from sheriffs, not to speak for them,” Soria said, “but don’t put these things in industrial corridors or hide them from view in high-crime, unlit, hard to get to areas… Even the state regulations say if you are locating a dispensary, you better locate it in a low-crime, highly-visible, highly-trafficked area. So, that’s what we are seeing across the board.”
Several outbursts regarding the current vertical integration of MMTCs and the exaggerated wait time associated with registering patients could be heard periodically throughout the meeting. All of which is completely out of the hands of local municipalities across the state.
There appeared to be a disconnect between what St. Johns County can and cannot control in terms of regulating medical marijuana. Cearley says he is not surprised by this confusion.
“Any public workshop I’ve ever held or attended, there is always a couple people that are flying off the handle right off the bat because they just don’t know what’s going on,” Cearley said. “They think we are trying to regulate something when we are not, and we are actually just trying to place it in zoning.”
After hearing all the public comments and questions, Cearley says the two takeaways for him were to keep regulations at a minimum when drafting a proposed set of rules and to incorporate some sort of buffer to keep future MMTCs away from schools.
Local activist, mother of five and Buds for Vets CEO Heather Preysz agrees with the 1,000-foot buffer and said she believes the most stringent regulations should be used when drafting land use and zoning laws for MMTCs.
“Get it away from churches, schools, just because I believe that those will become recreational and medicinal centers in the near future,” said Preysz.
In regards to state law that has tightly governed the amount of patients and MMTCs, that’s something both Preysz and Miller agree needs to change. While Preysz points to struggling states like New York that also has a vertically integrated marijuana marketplace, Miller says the process of becoming a patient in Florida is hindering to a lot of uninformed and sick people.
“They made so many restrictions that it’s almost impossible for anyone that’s ill and terminal to get it,” Miller said. “They have to wait three months to six months before they can even get it. They’ll be dead by then. It’s such an insanity.”