After previously planning to ban medical marijuana dispensaries, Coral Gables leaders are changing their stance and going back to the drawing board to decide how to regulate the businesses.
Commissioners decided not to take a final vote on the ban at Tuesday’s meeting. Instead, in response to a change in state law that requires dispensaries to be regulated the same way as pharmacies, they will consider additional regulations on pharmacies.
The move away from an outright ban is a reversal by city leaders, including Commissioner Vince Lago, the ban’s sponsor, who emphatically said in July he didn’t “want dispensaries popping up all over the city.”
He said he changed his mind after meeting with medical cannabis advocates and a resident whose son depends on the drug.
“When I sat down with them, I realized the answer of simply banning it is not appropriate. There has to be a better way to manage the zoning,” Lago said.
Until the city’s plans are finalized, it will operate with the same plan that’s been in place since 2014 — no action on dispensaries until cannabis is legal under federal law.
State legislators approved a bill in June implementing Amendment 2, a constitutional change legalizing medical cannabis that Florida voters approved by referendum last November.
The bill essentially gives local governments two choices: regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the same way they would treat pharmacies or ban them outright. The effect is to keep municipalities from limiting the number of dispensaries or restricting where they can be placed.
City leaders discussed creating a special overlay district for the dispensaries. Commissioner Michael Mena said he was against an outright ban and thinks the city should allow some, as long as they’re not near schools.
“I would like a scenario where we can have some dispensaries but maybe they’re not prevalent all over the city. The Senate bill didn’t really leave much room for that possibility,” Mena said.
The city’s latest step could be similar to the decision Miami Beach made earlier this year to quickly approve changes to zoning laws for pharmacies so that their previously proposed medical marijuana rules would apply.
Other commissioners, who voted in favor of the ban in July, said they still have concerns over potential crime because the majority of dispensaries are cash-only.
Staff presented commissioners with a study, published by the Journal of Primary Prevention, that showed an increase in property crimes — but not violent crime — in Colorado in areas adjacent to dispensaries.
“It showed there was an uptick in crime, not in the immediate vicinity of those businesses but maybe one or two blocks away,” Commissioner Frank Quesada said. “That’s what drove my position.”
Quesada said he’d be open to hearing a new plan but also asked police staff to look at other areas that have dispensaries in place to see if crime has increased.
Commissioner Patricia Keon echoed that sentiment and said that some residents have the drug delivered to them without using a dispensary.
“We’re not denying people access to it, we just may be denying access down the street,” Keon said. “There still is an opportunity for people to obtain this.”
Mena questioned whether the potential for crime should be a deterrent in planning for dispensaries.
“There’s probably all types of other businesses, especially cash businesses, that lead to a higher incidence of crime but we don’t ban those,” Mena said.