Miami Beach

Miami Beach passes new restrictions for medical marijuana dispensaries

Inside South Florida’s only legal medical marijuana grow operation

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.
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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.

Miami Beach passed new regulations on Wednesday to further restrict the number of medical marijuana dispensaries allowed on the island.

The City Commission passed an ordinance requiring at least 1,200 feet between dispensaries, which amounts to roughly one dispensary every four blocks. Dispensaries are already limited to four small areas of the city and must be at least 500 feet from schools.

Miami Beach initially hoped to limit the number of dispensaries on the island to three, but had to scrap those plans after state lawmakers passed legislation in 2017 that prevents local governments from placing more restrictions on dispensaries than they have on pharmacies. In order to restrict dispensaries to certain areas, Miami Beach had to either change zoning laws for pharmacies or ban medical marijuana dispensaries altogether.

City commissioners opted to pass an ordinance in September 2017 limiting both pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries to four specific areas of the city. The restrictions didn’t affect existing pharmacies, which were grandfathered in under the old rules. But they will apply to any applications to build new pharmacies.

Elected officials said they want to further limit the number of dispensaries because they anticipate that recreational marijuana will eventually be legalized in Florida.

“I think when we talk about medical marijuana we have to be thinking of the future,” said Commissioner Joy Malakoff. “I think we have to think about people lined up on the sidewalk to get their marijuana and not just medical.”

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Surterra Wellness at 1523 Alton Rd. was the first medical marijuana dispensary to open on Miami Beach. Miami Herald File

The new restrictions don’t apply to existing businesses, but they do apply to dispensaries that were in the process of obtaining a building permit when the ordinance passed. One company complained that the change blocks plans it had already spent a lot of money on.

Lobbyists for MedMen, a medical marijuana company that had planned to open a dispensary at 1428 Alton Rd., said the company has invested $1.2 million in the property. Under the new restrictions, the MedMen location is too close to an existing dispensary.

“There really is an equity argument,” said Ian Bacheikov, a lawyer representing the company. “We acted in good faith, we followed the code as it was passed, as it still stands today but for this ordinance.”

Miami Beach currently has one medical marijuana dispensary, a Surterra Wellness Center that opened last April. Other medical marijuana companies have applied for building permits or made inquiries regarding dispensary requirements.

Miami Beach’s Committee for Quality Education, a group of residents who advise the city on education-related issues, had hoped to further restrict the number of dispensaries by requiring them to be at least 500 feet from youth programs in addition to schools.

Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, who sponsored the ordinance, said she was sympathetic to their request, but had been advised by city staff that it would be nearly impossible to enforce because any activity involving children could potentially apply to the distance restrictions.

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On June 28, 2016, Surterra Therapeutics Cultivation Manager Wes Conner displays the fully grown flower of one of their marijuana plants at their North Florida facility. Surterra opened the first dispensary in Miami Beach last April. Joe Rondone AP File

The ordinance passed on Wednesday also changes how the distance requirement between dispensaries and schools is measured.

The previous ordinance did not include a method for measuring the distance and the city had been measuring from property line to property line. Now, the distance will be measured from the entrance and exit of the dispensary to the school property line. That’s the same method the city uses for establishments that sell alcohol.

Florida first authorized a limited medical marijuana system in 2014. Two years later, residents approved a constitutional amendment expanding access to the drug, a move supported by 71 percent of voters. On Miami Beach, 80 percent of voters favored the amendment.

With a recommendation from a doctor, patients in Florida can get a medical marijuana card allowing them to legally purchase the drug from a dispensary. Statewide, more than 180,000 patients have a card enabling them to receive medical marijuana treatment. It’s unclear how many of those patients live in Miami Beach because the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use does not report the location of patients.

Miami-Dade County is currently home to eight medical marijuana dispensaries, according to state records.

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