Hillsborough County Commission ups cap on medical marijuana dispensaries, which the state may preempt

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click to enlarge Hillsborough County Commission ups cap on medical marijuana dispensaries, which the state may preempt
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Wednesday morning, members of the Hillsborough County Commission voted to expand the cap potential medical marijuana dispensaries to 19. The move comes as Florida anticipates the rollout of medical marijuana in the state. Voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure making it illegal as medicine for a small list of conditions, but Florida's ultraconservative legislature is struggling to pass a framework that satisfies all parties involved.

On Wednesday during the first day of a special legislative session, the State House and Senate came closer to passing a bill setting the rules on medical pot.

If that happens, as the companion bills are currently written, it would preempt counties' abilities to set their own caps. 

But for now, medical pot advocates see the county's nearly 20-dispensary gap as an improvement on the previously suggested cap of 13. The original cap comes from a formula that designated one dispensary for every 67,222 residents, expanded by an amendment from Les Miller (one of two Democrats on the board) to 1.5 for the same population. The amendment passed 5-2, with the dissenting votes belonging to Commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White.

The decision came after a public hearing that brought out activists who braved the torrential downpour outside to speak against the “arbitrary” cap, which was reportedly based on numbers from the University of Florida. This is a shift from the county commission meeting on March 7, during which commissioners toyed with removal of any type of cap. That meeting set the guidelines for the official rollout of medical marijuana, implementing zoning ordinances, stipulations on gaining a county license and being subjected to county inspections, limited hours of operation, restricted signage, security requirements and background checks.

It seemed just a few weeks ago that you voted in one direction, and now there seems to be a pivot,” said Jessica Vaughn, who questioned the commissioners' motives during public comment. “As a constituent, it seems to me like lobbyists have come and swayed you to change your mind. Under the guise of public safety, all of a sudden your priority lies with the lobbyists. This bill will cause a monopoly within the medical marijuana industry. I urge you to think of the 71% of people who voted for this as a non-partisan issue, an issue they will look at carefully when it's time for re-election.”

Others spoke against what they say is an invitation for monopoly or medical marijuana "cartels" through the use of a point-based system that skews in favor of established dispensaries when it comes to handing out licenses.

What works? Not limiting dispensaries, open market, competition,” said Nick Castellano. “It promotes innovation, competitive pricing, competitive production methods and ultimately the highest quality of medicine for patients here locally. We have a duty to serve medical patients by providing medicine which grants high quality relief at which they can afford. Thirteen is absolutely ridiculous. Sixty-seven-thousand patients per dispensary would absolutely overwhelm the physical and natural infrastructure of the dispensaries anyway. Dispensaries in California can't handle more than 1,000 to 1,500 patients, and that's in a mature market. Limiting dispensaries is going to give the current monopoly exactly what they want: little competition and a stranglehold on pricing. Don't allow this.”

Though supporters of better access greatly out numbered them, a few in attendance called for stricter regulations on dispensaries, citing the effect of pill mills in the past and for the protection of families and neighborhoods (even if marijuana is not remotely as addictive as prescription painkillers are or capable of causing the user to overdose).

Commissioner Pat Kemp, the other Democrat on the commission, suggested an amendment to scrap the points system, but it failed to reach a vote for lack of a second supporter. She commented on the irony of the Republican-led commission trying to fight against free-market values when it came to medical marijuana.

Given the concerns that the board has expressed in terms of the free market and support of small businesses,” said Kemp. “I'm a little surprised that it's left to me here to make the free market argument to ensure that each of these new approved state licenses can open a dispensary for the most robust competition and the opening of the market. It is absolutely unnecessary to put this point system, this restriction on the free market, to follow what is already extraordinary regulation at the state level.”

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