When Irvin Rosenfeld runs low on his monthly allotment of federal government marijuana, the Lauderhill stock broker drives south for about an hour to Miami’s health district, the only location where he can legally pick up a circular tin packed with 300 joints.
It’s inconvenient: The pot he smokes every day to fight and treat a rare and painful bone tumor disorder is what allows him to make the drive. But like most other medical marijuana patients in Florida, the options for acquiring his medicine remain limited — for now.
As the state prepares to expand its highly restrictive medical cannabis program on Jan. 3 following the overwhelming passage of Amendment 2, dispensaries providing oils, low-THC pills, vape pens and other products are expected to pop up by the hundreds around the state. Given that federal law keeps pharmacies from distributing marijuana, dispensaries will likely be a key cog in a fledgling industry that today requires the vast majority of legal users to receive their medication by personal delivery.
But there’s uncertainty about how and when that will happen. State legislators and the Department of Health will likely set the parameters for the expanded program by June, which figures to be its own battle. But just as important as patients’ access to their medication is how — and whether — cities and counties regulate the location and operation of dispensaries, which critics fret will flood neighborhoods with “seedy elements” of the drug industry.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“Take Miami. Can you imagine if you’ve got 20 cities that do it and 10 that don’t?” said Rosenfeld, who plans to keep the rare federal prescription that gives him access to smokeable marijuana “flower” but also participate in the state’s separate, expanded program. “There’s got to be a way to implement it in a way that all the communities see the benefits.”
We’re not slinging weed here. We’re providing medicine.
Irvin Rosenfeld, medical marijuana patient and consultant
The process has already begun.
In January, Trulieve, one of six cultivators licensed by the state to grow marijuana, expects to open a storefront in the industrial zone directly east of Miami International Airport, one of the areas where Miami-Dade County has authorized the establishment of medical pot dispensaries. Four other locations have been approved by the county, although for now Costa Farms’ Modern Health Concepts headquarters in Redland is the only physical location in South Florida where a patient can legally pick up marijuana products under the state’s program.
But expansion is coming. This month, North Miami Beach passed zoning laws that effectively limit storefronts where marijuana products can be purchased (but not consumed) to about six or seven locations near Jackson North Medical Center and along Biscayne Boulevard. The regulations keep dispensaries a certain distance from schools and churches.
Jose Smith, North Miami Beach’s city attorney, said his office heavily studied Florida’s medicinal marijuana laws before crafting legislation passed by the city council. Initially, Smith thought the community would want to regulate dispensaries in a way that would effectively ban them, but instead he said the council took a “progressive” mindset.
You can’t say we’re not going to have strip clubs in our city, and you can’t say we’re not going to have marijuana dispensaries in our city because it’s a legal business.
Jose Smith, North Miami Beach city attorney
“I’m sure that a lot of cities are going to try to zone it out [through over-regulation], and my research is to the effect that once the Legislature says something is legal, you can’t do that,” said Smith. “You can’t say we’re not going to have strip clubs in our city, and you can’t say we’re not going to have marijuana dispensaries in our city because it’s a legal business.”
But the issue may not be that simple.
Due to federal laws that continue to hold that marijuana is an illicit drug without medicinal value, some cities say the conflict between state and federal law prohibits dispensaries. Miami, the largest city in South Florida, holds that opinion today, as does Coral Gables, where a 2014 law regulating dispensaries allows them only if the city attorney opines that medical marijuana is legal both under state and federal law.
“It’s still unsettled whether [dispensaries] are really legal or not,” said city attorney Craig Leen.
It’s still unsettled whether [dispensaries] are really legal or not.
Craig Leen, Coral Gables city attorney
Underscoring that point, states have been left alone by the U.S. Department of Justice to legalize and expand marijuana usage under President Obama’s recent policy of ignoring state-sanctioned operations previously subject to federal crackdowns. But some question whether that will change under President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for attorney general, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, who earlier this year called marijuana “dangerous.”
Another complication for cities caused by the federal government’s stance on marijuana: Most banks remain wary of doing business with marijuana dispensaries, meaning many storefronts could be cash-only operations.
For the most part, though, South Florida municipalities are monitoring Amendment 2 but have passed no laws and made no decisions on how and whether to regulate dispensaries. Broward County’s government, for instance, is undecided. Others, including Miami Beach and Hialeah, have implemented temporary bans on dispensaries, which has been both hailed and criticized.
“They should be moving very, very slowly,” said Gerald Greenspoon, a lawyer and co-founder of Greenspoon Marder, which has a cannabis practice. “[Cities] don’t have the implementing state legislation yet, nor state regulation by the Department of Health stating what is and what isn’t permitted.”
How these municipalities move forward won’t determine whether a state-estimated half-million future patients receive their medication, since they can receive up to a 45-day supply through delivery. It may not even be the biggest issue affecting access, which some physicians say is prohibitively restricted by Florida’s current requirement that patients hold a relationship with a state-certified doctor for three months before being accepted into the state’s compassionate-use registry and receiving medical marijuana.
But the prevalence and existence of dispensaries — which Amendment 2 opponents warned would bring “seedy elements of the pot industry” next door to churches and schools — could go a long way toward normalizing the medical use of marijuana and ensuring patients receive the same kind of guidance afforded someone picking up antibiotics from a Walgreens. When Amendment 2 kicks in, Florida’s program, currently limited to fewer than 1,000 patients suffering from terminal illness and chronic seizures and spasms, will open to scores also dealing with HIV, glaucoma, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions.
“We want to be treated as a pharmacy because we’re dispensing medicine,” said Richard Young, CEO of Modern Health Concepts.
We want to be treated as a pharmacy because we’re dispensing medicine.
Richard Young, CEO of Modern Health Concepts
Rosenfeld, who along with selling stocks runs My Medicine Consulting with his partner, Hiedi Handford, is hoping to work with South Florida cities to establish dispensary regulations, navigate conflicting state and federal laws and help them deal with the crush of patients coming down the pike. They note that treatments are specifically tailored to patients down to the dose, strain of marijuana and application, and that the industry is highly regulated by the state.
“We’re not slinging weed here,” he said. “We’re providing medicine.”
This article was updated to correct the name of Costa Farms’ Modern Health Concepts.