The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted unanimously on Feb. 20 to begin the process of permanently banning medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated area of the county – which excludes St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach.
Paolo Soria, the assistant county attorney for St. Johns County, delivered a presentation at the BCC meeting to give the board four possible options following the expiration of the one-year moratorium of medical marijuana dispensaries enacted in March 2017.
Expiring March 31, the moratorium prohibits medical marijuana dispensing facilities from being built in the unincorporated area of St. Johns County. At the Feb. 20 BCC meeting, the board directed staff to develop an ordinance resulting in a permanent ban of such marijuana dispensaries, after viewing Soria’s presentation and listening to public comments.
One of those comments came from resident Tom Reynolds, who urged the commission to allow medical marijuana.
"There's two kinds of medical marijuana," he said. "There's the 'get high kind' and then there's the kind that stops seizures. So, when you banned medical marijuana in the county, you're banning a child's ability to get 'non-get high' marijuana and that's what it's all about ... Don't deny any child, any parent, the right to get medication for a child having seizures."
Another resident, Ed Slavin, agreed with Reynolds' assertions.
"Please lift the moratorium and please make this legal in St. Johns County," he requested.
Soria noted at the meeting, however, that a permanent ban on medical marijuana dispensaries will not restrict access to the substance for those ordering it from home to treat a specific medical condition.
"It does not apply to the at-home delivery of medical marijuana to qualified patients," he added. "As an example – if you meet one of the debilitating conditions in the statute and you obtain a physical certification that you qualify to receive medical marijuana – you can order online or go to one of the two current retail facilities in Jacksonville and have it delivered to you at home."
If the ban is implemented, Soria said, it will prohibit the retail sale of marijuana within the county at brick and mortar stores, pharmacies and other outlets.
Instead of directing staff to implement a ban, the board could have proceeded with land development regulations consistent with Florida law, reviewed possible changes to zoning for pharmacies or extended the moratorium for an unspecified number of months, Soria told the board.
"I gave the board roughly four options – which are the options that are currently permissible under the regulatory framework given to us by the state of Florida legislature," Soria said. "They picked the option to ban medical marijuana treatment center dispensing facilities within the unincorporated area of St. Johns County; that was in fact a direction to staff to begin the process of formally prohibiting these types of facilities in the county."
Commissioner Jeb Smith delivered a closing pronouncement before submitting his vote at the conclusion of the meeting.
“Number one, this is still against federal statute,” he said. “Number two, there is still no restriction to access for anybody that has a need or that has a doctor's prescription to obtain [medical marijuana] and it can even be delivered at the home. I just believe that this board – we've dealt with some zoning issues as of late – and this is going to be a disaster when it comes to that as well.”
Commissioners Henry Dean, Jimmy Johns, Jay Morris and Paul Waldron also voted for the ban, which will not be formally implemented until a final hearing takes place in April following a series of meetings and public hearings. According Soria, the board’s Feb. 20 decision was a catalyst for county officials to develop an ordinance that would culminate in a permanent decision at a later date. He added that the board can direct staff to do something else at any point in time.
St. Augustine will be unaffected by any future decisions, Soria said, because the city’s zoning regulations allow St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach to act as "their own governments" with a distinct set of regulations that cannot be altered by St. Johns County.