The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries last week.
The county approved the one-year delay to allow time for the state to implement legislation regulating medical marijuana sales, said county spokeswoman Sarah Hand.
Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November that expands the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating conditions. With the amendment enacted in January, the Florida Legislature has until July to create laws that regulate the location of medical marijuana sales. If no such laws are enacted, said Hand, the Department of Health (DOH) has until October to do the same. The county wants to wait until that process is complete before taking any action of its own.
The moratorium also provides the county with time to thoroughly review land use and zoning ordinances, Hand added, so local regulations can be implemented to prevent dispensaries from being established next to schools, playgrounds, daycare facilities, churches and other areas where kids are gathered.
Lynnette Horwath, program coordinator for PACT Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County, fully supports the moratorium. Her organization focuses on preventing and reducing underage substance abuse, and she said the state has a great deal of work ahead to roll out and implement the amendment. As a result, she says it’s wise of the county to wait.
“It makes sense to delay these decisions until the DOH completes its implementation plans,” said Horwath, “so we are not driving any decisions in the dark, not knowing the guidelines ahead of us.”
Hand emphasized that the moratorium does not prevent people who have the legal right to purchase medical marijuana from doing so. It just delays the process of their purchasing it within the county.
Dr. Joseph Dorn, chief medical officer and co-founder of Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTC) of Florida, which opened a clinic in Ponte Vedra Beach in January, said the county’s decision doesn’t impact the clinic because it is solely a physician’s office providing consultations.
“We have no connections at all with the dispensaries,” he stressed. Dorn said his treatment center doesn’t direct patients to individual dispensaries; instead, MMTC provides contact information for the organizations that oversee several dispensaries around the state, which Dorn said ultimately puts the onus on the patients to determine which option they want to pursue.
Dorn doesn’t foresee his patients in St. Johns County having any trouble acquiring the medical marijuana product. He said the county’s decision will simply force patients to go somewhere else where a moratorium is not in place. Dorn also noted that dispensing organizations around the state are now delivering via courier.
He did, however, call the moratorium and similar stays around the state “overkill,” claiming that preexisting state laws already mandate where dispensaries can be located. Dorn also called the moratorium “hypocritical,” since he said 71.3 percent of Floridians voted in favor of Amendment Two.
“It’s interesting that these municipalities and counties are saying our people want it, but on the other hand we don’t want it here,” said Dorn, who noted that the Ponte Vedra clinic is progressively growing each week.
Dorn is hopeful the moratorium will be temporary, but understands change like this takes time, noting that medical marijuana still carries a stigma today.
Dr. Jeremy Mirabile believes there’s good reason for that stigma, however, and would like to see the moratorium extended indefinitely. The addiction specialists and medical director for Recovery Keys in St. Augustine and Jacksonville didn’t think the idea of taking a vote on medicinal marijuana was a good idea in the first place, since he said medicinal treatments are typically run through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first for validation and scientific rigor. Mirabile said there’s still uncertainty within the medical and scientific community regarding the exact constituents of marijuana, and until that’s studied independently, he doesn’t believe doctors should be recommending it to patients. He added that legalizing medical marijuana exposes more people to the chemical and allows the disease of addiction to blossom.
“I think it’s an all-around bad idea,” said Mirabile, who also acknowledged the voters’ decision in November and medical marijuana’s inevitable presence in Florida. “It’s sort of like a train that’s barreling down the rails, and it seems like there’s no stopping it.”
St. Johns County will host a medical marijuana workshop at 4 p.m. April 13 to discuss proposed zoning and permitting regulations for medical marijuana retail stores. The public is invited to attend the event at the St. Johns County Permit Center to provide feedback.