Council Approves Step for Medical Marijuana

Gulfport is one step closer to amending their zoning codes to allow Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTCs) in the city thanks to a narrowly split 3-2  vote by council at their regular meeting on Tuesday, October 17.

In November 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 2 to the state constitution allowing the use of low THC marijuana by patients with medical conditions like cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder. As of August 1, 2017, the Washington Examiner reports that 29 states allow medical marijuana use, while eight plus the District of Columbia have legalized it recreationally.

But there is a key legal point clouding the issue and it’s causing delays in some state- and local-level MMTC approvals.

Currently, marijuana use is illegal at the federal level as it is technically considered a Schedule 1 drug thanks to the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. According to an August 11, 2016 Newsweek story, “Substances in Schedule 1 are determined by the Food and Drug Administration to have no medical use. States that allow marijuana for medical use or legalize recreation use remain in defiance of federal law.”

According to Newsweek, this paradox in law exists because “the Drug Enforcement Administration has not taken aggressive action in states that have opted to legalize medical marijuana or small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The Justice Department reserved its right to challenge state laws if public health or safety problems emerge or if the states fail to enact strict regulations to control marijuana use and sale.”

Enter Gulfport Resolution 2017-99 that now authorizes the city manager and staff to prepare zoning amendments related to MMTCs that follow Florida statutes for review by the Planning and Zoning Board. Three sections of the city’s Chapter 22 of municipal code of ordinances entitled “Zoning” would be subject to amendment.

Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson and Councilmember Michael Fridovich are firmly in favor of approving MMTCs in the city. They voted in favor of the resolution on Tuesday.

“We shouldn’t even be voting on this at the city level because it passed” at the state level “by referendum,” said Henderson. “That’s my issue with the whole thing. I’ve never had a problem with it and medical [marijuana] is run like a pharmacy. I would like to see us respect what the voters of the state of Florida asked for.”

Fridovich said, “I think it’s a great idea. Marijuana has medicinal purposes. We have people in the audience who have marijuana cards from other places and they have found it is beneficial to them. If it were up to me, I would approve a resolution for it to be legal on all fronts. For right now, I have no problem with this at all.”

Councilperson Yolanda Roman said the actions “from the state concern me. Until the full regulations are written, it is my preference not to adopt a Gulfport zoning ordinance. We can always bring this [topic] back if the need increases.”

She also noted that within two-and-a-half miles of Gulfport, a dispensary exists so she does not see the needs of Gulfport residents “being hindered.”

Regarding citizens contacting her with their opinions on the issue, “I’ve only received one comment since February. So, I’m not sure what the community really feels like.”

Roman voted no on the resolution.

Vice Mayor Dan Liedtke asked, “If this were to pass, we wouldn’t be able to prevent dispensaries from being put on Shore or Beach boulevards?”

“That is correct,” said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly. “Wherever we allow a retail pharmacy, a dispensary would be allowed” unless it was restricted by a zoning ordinance.

“I would support a citywide ban versus allowing dispensaries because I’m concerned” how MMTCs “would change the character of downtown Gulfport. We can’t limit where they will go. When people voted on the state amendment, it wasn’t on the condition that they could walk to the nearest treatment center. Other cities in the county allow this.”

Liedtke voted no on the resolution.

Councilmember Christine Brown said as a result of the discussion, she received clarification that “things weren’t set in stone, yet” at the state level. “It’s not federally accepted.” Right now, “it’s only statewide,” she said, “and, “70 percent of Floridians voted for it.”

City staff clarified that, if approved, the council could control the presence of MMTC businesses in Gulfport through zoning applications that require a vote.

Brown voted yes on the resolution.

After Tuesday’s narrow approval, the next step for the city is for the zoning board to make a “yea” or “nay” recommendation to the council, said O’Reilly. There could be as many as three zoning amendments covering medical marijuana dispensing, treatment and processing facilities.

A zoning amendment receives two readings at separate council meetings along with votes, said O’Reilly. If approved on second reading, a zoning amendment becomes law.

In a recent Gabber editorial, Henderson wrote, “Marijuana has been demonized throughout modern American history. There is nothing to be afraid of. Florida is not going to turn into a drug-addled perpetual Woodstock. Marijuana has great medicinal value. It is natural, it is helpful and should be legal. Contact me or your city council representative to share your thoughts on this.”

In Other Business

Council unanimously passed resolutions to conduct a municipal general election on March 13, 2018 and to approve the application of a new daycare center at 5801 9th Avenue S.

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