A clerk handles the merchandise at a Southern California medical marijuana dispensary. (Los Angeles Times)
By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
With 71 percent of Floridians having voted to legalize medical marijuana, it might seem surprising to see so many South Florida communities impose moratoriums on dispensaries.So far, Boca Raton, Delray Beach and the village of Golf have imposed year-long timeouts. Also, six-month freezes have been imposed in Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Hallandale Beach, although Hallandale's will expire in January.
Given the unknowns, the moratoriums are understandable. For while voters agreed to give residents with certain medical ailments a constitutional right to medical pot, the Legislature has yet to write the implementing language that clarifies how the process will work, exactly.
After all, no one wants a dispensary next door to a school or church, or congregated in a single neighborhood, changing its character. We've also yet to learn whether legislators will outlaw packaging that looks like candy or overwrite another law that prohibits anyone from smoking marijuana, medical or otherwise.
Coral Springs Vice Mayor Dan Daley, who supported the ballot effort, said city leaders "are taking a lot of flak" about their moratorium. "People are asking, 'Why didn't you prepare?' That's not the issue. We're waiting to see what the state does."
Absent a moratorium, cities fear businesses will apply for conditional use permits when the amendment takes effect on Jan. 3, but before the state's regulatory framework is established. From there, the courts could get involved.
So it makes sense to call a timeout and track one of the hottest topics facing lawmakers next spring: how to regulate the medical marijuana industry.
Let's hope they do a better job than the scheme they created after passing a 2014 law that allows doctors to prescribe a non-euphoric version of cannabis — a process that ended with only six large companies being allowed to grow and distribute medical marijuana in Florida.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who filed a medical marijuana bill last year, favors a system that lets anyone apply for a medical marijuana business license and lets dispensers operate separately from growers, opening up opportunities for small, minority-owned companies.
Brandes also wants cities to have some say on where dispensaries may be located. "We really do want to have local control," he said. "My constituents want that."
Local control could allow some communities to ban dispensaries altogether, but Brandes envisions someone creating a regulated delivery service that helps patients too sick to travel.
Boca Raton vice mayor Robert Weinroth said that while he believes in local control, this is a situation where "the Legislature should preempt and have a statewide policy on how we're going to handle this."
"If we start going city by city, county by county, and one county is a little bit more lenient in regulation, it could find itself the pot capital of Florida," he said. "We'd be much better served with uniform regulations that come down from the legislature using the same criteria, enforcement and implementation."
A Coral Springs memo said the moratorium will allow staff to "study the impact on crime, demand on city services, surrounding property values, traffic, congestion, and other aspects of the general public health, safety and welfare."
While crime is a concern anywhere, comparisons to pill mills appear unwarranted. Those clinics allowed shady doctors to prescribe deadly controlled substances for cash and drew out-of-state drug addicts to South Florida.
By contrast, everyone expects the medical marijuana industry to be tightly regulated. The amendment limits its use to patients with a list of debilitating conditions, including cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress syndrome and other related diseases.
Besides, over half the country has legalized medical marijuana, and there's no indication that local dispensaries have created an increase in crime. Few would question pharmacies in their cities.
With more questions than answers right now, it makes sense for cities to pass temporary moratoriums. But once the state draws the roadmap for medical marijuana, local leaders should remember that a vast majority of Floridians have said they support access to those it can help.
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