Commissioners worry that adding a sixth dispensary would be “detrimental to the health, safety, morals, order, comfort, convenience or appearance of the neighborhood.”
On five occasions, Sarasota County commissioners have metaphorically held their noses and granted approval for medical marijuana dispensaries, complaining that the existing Florida state law gives them almost no choice between watching them pop up “on every corner” or banning them outright.
But on Monday they unanimously denied a special exception to the sixth applicant, Knox Medical, which sought to site its cannabis clinic in a former pool supply store at 2864 Clark Road. On advice from the board’s attorney, Joshua Moye, they decided that adding one more dispensary to this one area could be seen as “detrimental to the health, safety, morals, order, comfort, convenience or appearance of the neighborhood.”
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This language is from a special exception ordinance that the county put in place before the Florida Legislature finalized its statute regarding local approval of dispensaries. As Moye noted, the fact that it is pre-existing gives local leaders some options in restricting the outlets to certain commercial zones in the county, and lets them impose conditions on approval. But, as he reminded them Monday, they cannot make any changes now to the ordinance without being subject to pre-emption by a much more lenient state law.
The Legislature required that medical marijuana dispensaries be allowed anywhere a pharmacy is sited, or not allowed at all. County commissioners have agreed repeatedly that they want to respect the will of voters, who overwhelmingly called for the legalization of cannabis for health care purposes.
“We listened to heartfelt testimony from people of all ages, all walks of life, about the benefits of this, and I believe what they say,” Commissioner Al Maio said.
But they also want to avoid the kind of proliferation that happened with pain clinics in Florida.
“What we saw with the pain clinics, they popped up everywhere,” Chairman Charles Hines said at a September meeting where the board approved the county’s fifth clinic, also on Clark near Beneva Road. “You see what happened with vaping stores. If one does start popping up on every corner, there may be some no votes in the future.”
That future came swiftly for Knox Medical, a company with 16 Florida locations that is in the process of rebranding as Fluent. Asked whether the new name is aimed at a transition to recreational marijuana, corporate attorney Azlina Goldstein-Siegel said that it’s meant as a reflection of the company’s knowledge in the field.
County resident Jeff Handler, who lives in a condominium near the proposed Fluent site, asked commissioners to deny the application because the former pool store sits at the edge of a commercial district, close to single-family and multifamily homes. He and Maio both noted the proximity of an ice cream store.
“While I do personally agree with the benefits of medical marijuana, I don’t agree with this location,” Handler said.
Commissioners’ discomfort had been apparent with every new approval. Commissioner Mike Moran has asked each applicant to promise not to sell recreational marijuana in the event it becomes legal in Florida, and each has refused to make such a commitment.
“It is hard for us to make a stipulation that is based on pure speculation,” Goldstein-Siegel told Moran. She made an impassioned case that clustering medical cannabis dispensaries in one location actually helps patients who require different products for their ailments.
“We have met every one of the requirements that you have set forth,” she said. “I understand that there is a concern with respect with proximity. But it goes back to providing access for patients that seriously need this for their own care.”
But commissioners were of one mind that the Clark Road corridor may have reached its saturation point for marijuana outlets.
“In Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, they have a red-light district,” said Commissioner Christian Ziegler. “It seems like we’re creating a green district here.”