Miami Beach

Cannabis company sues Miami Beach over restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries

A cannabis company is taking Miami Beach to court after its efforts to open a medical marijuana dispensary on Alton Road were thwarted amid fears that the area would become a marijuana hub.

Los Angeles-based MedMen is suing the city over new restrictions on how close dispensaries can be to each other. The company says the restrictions violate a state law preventing local governments from limiting the number of medical marijuana dispensaries.

In a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the company challenged an ordinance the Miami Beach City Commission passed last month requiring at least 1,200 feet between dispensaries, which amounts to roughly one dispensary every four blocks. Dispensaries were already limited to four small areas of the city and have to be at least 500 feet from schools.

The restrictions effectively limit the number of dispensaries that can be built in Miami Beach to seven, according to MedMen’s calculations. State regulations require local governments to choose between banning medical marijuana dispensaries altogether or applying the same restrictions to dispensaries that they apply to pharmacies. They can’t limit dispensaries to a specific number.

Miami Beach declined to comment on pending litigation.

The city initially hoped to limit the number of dispensaries on the island to three, but after the state restrictions were created in 2017, Miami Beach commissioners passed a law limiting both pharmacies and medical marijuana dispensaries to four areas of the city. The restrictions didn’t affect existing pharmacies, which were grandfathered in under the old rules, but they did apply to any applications to build new ones.

City commissioners say they want to restrict medical marijuana dispensaries now because they worry that if recreational marijuana is legalized in Florida, the dispensaries will start to sell recreational pot.

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

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.

Malakoff proposed new legislation to prevent more dispensaries from opening, but the idea didn’t have enough support to move forward.

The commissioner’s concerns are shared by area residents, said Gayle Durham, president of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association, which represents the residential area next to the 1428 Alton Rd. location where MedMen planned to open its dispensary.

“I think the medical marijuana dispensary is claiming falsely that they’re concerned about their patients,” Durham said. “If they were really concerned they would be locating throughout the city rather than in the South Beach party district. They’re just gearing up for recreational marijuana to exploit that in South Beach to make the most profit off of a recreational drug, not the medication.”

As of mid-February, Miami Beach had only received one application to open a dispensary in Mid Beach and none for North Beach.

Daniel Yi, the head of corporate communications for MedMen, acknowledged that they “look forward” to a time when recreational marijuana is legal throughout the United States. The company sells recreational marijuana in California, where it is legal.

“We look at this as a whole wellness spectrum,” Yi said.

But he stressed that the company abides by state laws and respects the rights of local governments to regulate dispensaries. In the case of Miami Beach, however, Yi said the city changed the rules after the company had already begun the process of opening a dispensary.

“In this particular case we just feel that we were unfairly treated,” he said.

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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 came after the company says it had already signed a 10-year lease and invested $1.2 million in renovating the property. MedMen applied for a business license and building permit before the new restrictions were put in place, according to the lawsuit, but its final building permit was denied because 1428 Alton Rd. is roughly 100 feet from another dispensary.

MedMen submitted construction drawings as part of the building permit process a month before Miami Beach’s planning board discussed new restrictions limiting dispensaries to one every 300 feet, according to the lawsuit. But as soon as the planning board gave a thumbs up to the proposed restrictions, its recommendation created a moratorium on the approval of new permits that would have conflicted with the restrictions. MedMen argues that the “de facto moratorium” was unlawful because it was instituted before the City Commission had considered the proposed restrictions.

The company also argues that the ordinance was invalidly enacted because city commissioners raised the proposed distance requirement to 1,200 feet during the February commission meeting without public input and without having previously advertised that distance requirement. MedMen had asked the commission to include an exception in the ordinance for dispensaries that had already applied for a building permit, but the commission voted no.

In its lawsuit, MedMen asked the court to bar Miami Beach from enforcing the new ordinance against the dispensary, arguing that it will otherwise “suffer irreparable harm.” MedMen argued that the court would be upholding the voters’ will by preventing the city from instituting the restrictions. Eighty percent of voters in Miami Beach gave a thumbs up to the 2016 constitutional amendment expanding access to medical marijuana after Florida first authorized a limited medical marijuana system in 2014. Statewide, 71 percent of voters supported the amendment.

Earlier this month, a ban on smokable medical marijuana was repealed by the Florida Legislature.

With a recommendation from a certified doctor, patients with qualifying conditions in Florida can get a medical marijuana card allowing them to legally purchase the drug from a dispensary. Statewide, more than 190,000 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.

Once the number of patients in Florida passes 200,000, the state will have to issue more licenses to medical marijuana companies, which could affect the number of dispensaries opening across the state.

Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report

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