County won’t ban marijuana dispensaries

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County commissioners voted 3-2 Thursday to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Okeechobee County.

At the Aug. 10 county commission meeting, County Attorney John Cassels said under Florida law, all elements of that process from cultivation to use are licensed to individual companies by the state.

The only question for the county is whether or not to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the county.

“You can ban dispensaries within your jurisdiction,” said Mr. Cassels.

He said if a county allows the dispensaries, the state also requires that local regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries cannot be more stringent that the local restrictions on pharmacies.

However, if the county bans the dispensaries and the city adopts an ordinance that allows medical marijuana dispensaries, the city ordinance would apply in the city limits. Likewise if the county allows dispensaries, but the city bans them, the city ordinance is the rule in the city limits.

The county also has the option of putting greater restrictions on pharmacies, as those restrictions would also apply to medical marijuana dispensaries.

“That’s probably not a great option in the long run,” said Mr. Cassels.

“We don’t want a dispensary on every street corner,” he continued, “but that’s probably a non-event. These are for-profit businesses.”

He said it is unlikely there will be enough demand to support a large number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Okeechobee County.

“It’s hard to imagine in the near future any market demand that would support numerous dispensaries,” he said.

If a county bans the dispensaries, people could still get medical marijuana by courier or they could travel to another county to obtain it, he said.

Banning dispensaries would be contrary to the wishes of the voters in Okeechobee County, the attorney said.

He said 66 percent of Okeechobee voters voted in favor of medical marijuana. He said if they ban dispensaries, Okeechobee residents whose doctors approve them for use of medical marijuana would have to drive to the coast or pay the additional expense of a courier service.

Cultivation is an agricultural endeavor, so it will be a permitted use in an agricultural zone. Processing facilities will probably be located near the cultivation facilities, he said.

Chairman Terry Burroughs said there are already regulations on the books in regard to where dispensaries can be placed.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said he opposes medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I believe this is a stepping stone,” he said. Once medical marijuana is approved, there is always a push for recreational marijuana.

“You still feel it is a gateway drug,” he said.

Commissioner Culpepper said if counties around Okeechobee ban medical marijuana dispensaries, there could be a proliferation of dispensaries in Okeechobee County.

Commissioner David Hazellief said he is not an advocate of marijuana. “I didn’t vote it in. I think the state is going to cram it down our throat,” he said.

“I can go either way.

“I think we have to look at all options,” he said. Later when pressed for a vote, Commissioner Hazellief voted against banning the dispensaries.

“I know it (marijuana use) has affected a lot of lives. But the voters voted it in,” he said. He added that in two years he expected recreational marijuana to be on the state ballot. “In my view, there is no good way out of this,” he said.

“I think it is super hypocritical for us to say it’s OK for our farmers to grow it but it’s not OK for people to sell it,” said Commissioner Bradley Goodbread.

He said it should be regulated, but he would not support a ban.

Commissioner Kelly Owens said she supports a ban at this point, if only to give the county time to see what surrounding areas do.

“It’s more of a local control issue,” she said. “There are a number of counties around us that attempted to have some local control and it backfired on them.

“Until that gets ironed out, I prefer to take the wait and see approach,” she said. “I support a ban until I have a real firm handle on what our local control options are.”

Mr. Cassels said it would be easier to undo a ban than to reign back in dispensaries that have set up shop.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said if they banned it in St. Lucie County and Indian River County and Okeechobee didn’t, we would have dispensaries.

“People voted for it. They wanted it in. I would not ban it. Let it go the way it is,” said Chairman Burroughs. “If you have a situation, just like anything else, you have to go back and modify it.

“I don’t see a reason why we would ban a dispensary if somebody wanted to put one in.

“If the city decided to put in a ban, they would override our jurisdiction in the city limits,” he said.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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