Land Development Regulations to allow medical marijuana dispensaries

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to amend the Land Development Regulations (LDRs) to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the county. Commissioner Kelly Owens cast the lone dissenting vote.

The public hearing was scheduled for 7 p.m. in order to make it easier for members of the public to participate. Dr. Ramesh Kumar, who has a cancer practice in Okeechobee, was the only member of the public to address the commission.

“The system that creates marijuana in plants exists in human beings — the same identical system,” he said.

“When you take a run and you feel that high, the endorphin system kicks in. In diseased states and aging, somehow we lose that,” he said.

“The reason I got involved in the medical cannabis world is a personal story, My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was widespread. We tried chemo, nothing worked.

“She was on her death bed when my wife flew out to California to say her last good-bye.

This was five years ago,” he continued. He said his wife called him and asked if medical marijuana might help her mother. He said he did research to find out if medical marijuana could make a difference in his mother-in-law’s quality of life, and they decided to try it.

“She had great quality of life. From being on her death bed, within about a week, to being able to go out into the garden and dig up her flower beds and being able to walk and function,” he continued. Although she died seven months later, “the point is this has to do with quality of life,” he said.

He said he became a proponent of the use of medical marijuana for terminally-ill cancer patients.

“I am getting calls from lots of patients about getting medical cannabis,” he said. “I am so afraid that medical cannabis can go the way of the pill mills.”

“I consider medical cannabis as a pharmaceutical medicine,” he explained.

“We are getting some angry calls from patients who think they have this condition just on hearsay — ‘oh I think I have PTSD so I want marijuana’ — which is not right.

“Some of my brothers in the medical field have made it a commodity,” he continued.

He said he wants medical marijuana for his patients, but also wants to be sure that those who are prescribed medical marijuana are monitored by doctors.

“How can we on one hand make it easily available for patients who need it, and how do we monitor our brothers and sisters in the medical field?” he asked.

“When I do prescribe medical cannabis, I make a medical decision on the amount, the route of administration, the quantity and the duration,” he said.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the number of dispensaries allowed in each region is determined by the state.

“That’s out of our hands,” he said. The county can only determine where the dispensaries can be allowed within the county.

“The conversation we are having tonight is about changing the land use regulations for a business that is still going through the process of state regulatory mandates,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. “I want to be clear. I am not asking for a ban. We’ve gone past that and I understand that.

“I am simply asking as a commission that we wait until we can make an informed decision based on determined, adopted regulations. To do anything less is not responsible government in my opinion. If any other business was before us, and it was still going through state regulatory mandates, I would have the same opinion.”

Chairman Burroughs asked Commissioner Owens to clarify her statement.

“The regulations are still being determined by the Department of Health for the state,” said Commissioner Owens.

“The Department of Health has them, but as of today, will not release them because of a lawsuit,” said Chairman Burroughs.

“I hear a lot of people around the county, you see it on social media, they say nobody knows what’s going on,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

“Today I put on social media, every site I could find, that this meeting is here at 7 p.m., what it was for, and basically the only person who came to speak, Dr. Kumar, was invited by a commissioner to give information on the subject.

“I did everything I could to make sure that everybody knew, and nobody showed,” he said.

“We’ve already said we are going to allow it. The only question is where,” said Commissioner Culpepper. He added that the state regulations have determined rules such as how close a dispensary can be to a school.

“There is a lawsuit right now. We don’t know how that will end up,” he said.

The lawsuit is relative to co-op of farmers, said Chairman Burroughs.

“We have over 60-something percent of people in this community who have said they are in favor of this,” he said. “People voted that they wanted this.”

Commissioner David Hazellief said, “when we have 60 something percent of the people vote for this, I think it is our job to listen to them.”

“I agree. When the majority of the community says this is what we want, it is incumbent on us to determine how we accommodate that wish,” said Commissioner Owens.

On Sept. 22, a lawsuit was filed by Columbus Smith, a farmer from Panama City, who alleges the state law is unconstitutional because it is so narrowly written that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for a license to grow medical marijuana.

In the 2016 election, 8,886 Okeechobee County voters voted ‘yes’ and 4,504 voted ‘no’ on the medical marijuana amendment to the state constitution. Thus, 66.36 percent of the votes cast in the county were in favor of medical marijuana.

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