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Few places locally to be allowed to sell medical marijuana


Even though medical marijuana has a wide range of proven therapeutic benefits and its use was overwhelmingly approved by Florida voters last November, dispensaries will be banned in most of Indian River County.

If officials proceed as planned, there will be no dispensaries in the unincorporated areas that make up the vast majority of the county. Likewise there will be none in Fellsmere. Dispensaries will also be banned within the Vero Beach city limits, except for one that was grandfathered in. 

The only place dispensaries will be allowed in accordance with state law is in the city of Sebastian.

“We considered the issue very carefully,” Sebastian Vice Mayor Andrea Coy said. “The voters overwhelmingly voted for marijuana. Why would politicians try to deny the voters’ will?”

Vero, Fellsmere and county officials say a lack of local control over dispensary locations is the main factor pushing them to ban the sale of medical marijuana in their jurisdictions.

After months of fumbling around on the issue, the Florida State Legislature passed the Medical Use of Marijuana Act on June 9. It limits local government’s control over dispensary locations, giving them the choice of allowing dispensaries anywhere a pharmacy can be placed or banning them altogether.

"Given the stark choices, the board decided to go with banning," said County Attorney Dylan Reingold. "The board wouldn't have prohibited the dispensaries if the state would've given them more control.

"We wouldn't be able to control them if they're near churches, residential districts or too close to each other," Reingold added.

The law does state that dispensaries may not be within 500 feet of a public or private elementary, middle or secondary school, said Sheriff's spokesman Maj. Eric Flowers, but it imposes few other restrictions on locations.

“If the county wants to ban them, we would support them,” Flowers said.

Reingold said the county commissioners earlier this month voted 5-0 for a draft ordinance to ban the dispensaries. He said he'll present the draft ordinance at a public hearing set for August 15.

The attorney said another reason why commissioners are willing to ban dispensaries is because residents will have access to them in Sebastian and at one location in Vero Beach that was approved in May before the state law was passed.

Even though Vero Beach plans to block additional medical marijuana facilities, that one dispensary on Commerce Avenue will still be allowed to open, said Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor.  

O'Connor said the Vero City Council last month voted to place a moratorium on dispensaries until a city code that conformed to the state could be written. He said an ordinance to ban the dispensaries will be presented to the City Council later this month.

"We don't like that the state law will allow them in any commercial zone," O'Connor said. "We feel this is a new industry that needs more regulation."

Fellsmere also plans to ban the dispensaries, said City Manager Jason Nunemaker.

He said the main concern for Fellsmere was that a majority of other jurisdictions on the Treasure Coast were banning them.

"We were concerned about the impact it would have on the city if we were one of the few areas that allowed them," Nunemaker said. "I don't think we're prepared for it."

That thinking did not sway the Sebastian City Council, which unanimously approved an ordinance in favor of the facilities in March and April, City Clerk Jeanette Williams said. Council members stuck by their decision after the state made changes in June to the law.

Local law enforcement agencies have a neutral stance on the issue, according to the Sebastian and Fellsmere Police Departments.

“It’s not law enforcement’s role to determine what the law should be,” Sebastian police spokesman Commander John Blackledge said. “Our responsibility is to carry out the will of elected officials.”

“It’s not for me to decide,” said Fellsmere police Chief Keith Touchberry. He also said his biggest concern would be protecting the facilities.

“There’s no state requirement for law enforcement to be at the buildings for physical security,” Touchberry said. “There would have to be a city ordinance put in place for protection.”

The Florida Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, or Amendment 2, was approved Nov. 8, 2016 by some 70 percent of Florida voters.

The amendment states qualifying patients with certain diseases or conditions who use medical marijuana are not subject to civil or criminal punishment under Florida law. Diseases and conditions covered by the amendment and subsequent state law include  cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease and a number of others.