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State law invalidated Miami Beach’s proposed medical marijuana zoning; now what?

Trulieve, South Florida’s first medical marijuana dispensary, is located near Miami International Airport
Trulieve, South Florida’s first medical marijuana dispensary, is located near Miami International Airport cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

After state lawmakers passed legislation governing Florida’s medical marijuana industry this month, local zoning regulations for dispensaries being considered in Miami Beach have stalled.

The new state regulations pre-empt local governments from regulating medical cannabis dispensaries any more than they regulate pharmacies, blowing a hole in the zoning plans of Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach. The only other option for cities is to totally ban medical marijuana retail outlets.

Beach commissioners had given initial approval to regulations allowing one dispensary in each of the city’s main sections (South, Middle and North Beach) with restrictive zoning allowing such businesses to open only in certain commercial areas. The county had set up buffer zones separating dispensaries from each other and residential properties.

Now local governments have to make a choice. The Beach can take the zoning and the business license processes used for pharmacies and apply them to dispensaries. More than three would be allowed to open citywide — state law would prevent the city from limiting the total.

Modern Health Concepts owns South Florida's only legal medical marijuana grow operation. The company recently allowed a Miami Herald photographer and reporter to tour the facility.

On Wednesday, Beach commissioners moved fast on a workaround. They want to fast-track changes to zoning laws for pharmacies so that the previously proposed medical marijuana rules are applied to dispensaries and pharmacies.

Commissioner Michael Grieco proposed the change through an accelerated process, calling for a two-month moratorium while the zoning changes move through the planning board and back to the commission.

“We can accomplish that in 60 days,” he said.

I can’t support a free-for-all of medical marijuana dispensaries in Miami Beach.

Commissioner Joy Malakoff

The other option would have been for officials to completely ban medical marijuana dispensaries within their city limits. This would be a politically defiant option for Miami Beach, where 80 percent of voters favored Amendment 2 last year.

That didn’t stop one commissioner from proposing a ban. Joy Malakoff wants to prohibit medical cannabis dispensaries across the Beach.

“I can’t support a free-for-all of medical marijuana dispensaries in Miami Beach,” she said.

She didn’t have support from fellow commissioners. Although she wanted to give the city more time to work on the rules, she voted for the 60-day moratorium, which passed on a 4-2 vote. Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán was absent. Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez opposed it. So did Mayor Philip Levine, saying he believed voters wanted the state’s regulations.

Alemán, who is out of the country on vacation this week, shared her concerns in a written statement that was read into the record.

“As pharmacies are currently allowed in almost all commercial and mixed use districts of the city, as well as within multifamily residential districts, the city would not be able to control the number of treatment centers, or regulate the hours of sale, the signage, advertising, or security for such establishments,” she wrote.

During the regular legislative session, Florida lawmakers failed to pass a bill implementing Amendment 2, a constitutional change legalizing medical cannabis passed by referendum in November 2016. In a short June special session, the medical pot bill passed. Gov. Rick Scott’s desk signed the bill into law Friday.

RIPPLES IN MIAMI-DADE

Other Miami-Dade cities are in a holding pattern or have already made it clear they don’t want medical cannabis dispensaries.

In Miami, the city has not considered any zoning legislation or a moratorium for retail medical cannabis outlets, and it appears the largest city in South Florida is in no rush.

Homestead is currently under a 12-month moratorium that began in February. Last December, Miami Gardens imposed an eight-month moratorium on approving any permits or certificates of use for medical marijuana dispensaries. The city likely won’t be taking action for a few months.

Coral Gables has taken the stance that the city will not allow dispensaries until they are allowed under federal law. The Gables City Commission is expected to vote on an item prohibiting the businesses next month, following the latest activity on the state level.

City attorney Craig Leen clarified that the city isn’t planning to prohibit the use of medical marijuana, just the dispensaries.

“Whatever you think about medical marijuana, positive or negative, the problem is that dispensaries are not legal under federal law. Because it’s a cash business, our concern is that they could become a nuisance,” Leen said.

Whatever we do to the medical marijuana treatment centers, we’d have to do to Walgreens or Publix or any mom-and-pop pharmacy.

North Miami City Manager Larry Spring

North Miami doesn’t have any medical marijuana dispensary laws on the books, but city staff members and administrators have been discussing how they would regulate the businesses.

City Manager Larry Spring said the latest state action sort of puts the city “in a box.”

“We can either outright ban them or regulate them like other pharmacies,” Spring said. “Whatever we do to the medical marijuana treatment centers, we’d have to do to Walgreens or Publix or any mom-and-pop pharmacy.”

The state law will end some of the restrictions Miami-Dade imposed on medical dispensaries located outside of city limits, said Tere Florin, spokeswoman for the county’s Regulatory and Economic Resources Department.

Current county rules for unincorporated areas, which follow Miami-Dade zoning regulations, bar two dispensaries from operating within one mile of each other, or within 500 feet of a residential property. The state law doesn’t include those restrictions, though it does include a buffer for schools similar to the county rules.

“The state law goes into effect July 1,” Florin said, “and the county will adhere to it.”

This article has been corrected to reflect which commissioners supported and opposed the moratorium.

Miami Herald staff writers Monique O. Madan, Douglas Hanks and David Smiley contributed to this report.

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