Palmetto Park Road between A1A and Intracoastal Waterway
is possible location
By Mary Hladky
The City Council has cleared the way for medical marijuana dispensaries to open on the barrier island and other sites in Boca Raton.
Ending years of resistance to dispensaries, council members on Feb. 11 voted 3-2, with Jeremy Rodgers and Andrea O’Rourke dissenting, in favor of allowing them within the city limits.
“To me, it comes down to compassion,” said council member Andy Thomson.
“It begs the question of what kind of city do we want to be,” he said. “I would hope we would choose, all things being equal, to be a compassionate city as long as we can maintain the quality of life we have here.”
Council members have struggled to find the right balance between allowing access to a substance that helps people with medical conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder while safeguarding Boca Raton against a feared proliferation of dispensaries.
Council members approved a moratorium on dispensaries in 2014 and banned them in 2017.
But public opinion has moved in favor of medical use of marijuana. Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment in 2016 that legalized it.
Since then, 230 dispensaries have opened across the state, with 42 located in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, according to the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use.
Dispensary operators, medical marijuana users and owners of businesses related to medical marijuana urged council members to lift the ban during three recent city meetings.
Shari Kaplan Stellino, CEO of the Cannectd Wellness health clinic in Boca Raton, whose physicians help patients manage medical marijuana use, told the council how it helped her son, who she said was born with central nervous system and seizure disorders and brain damage.
He’s 17 now, and his conditions have improved to the point that he will graduate from Boca Raton High School and begin studies at Florida Atlantic University later this year.
“Cannabis is an integral part of health care,” she said. “It is imperative we have dispensaries in east Boca Raton.”
Just because Boca Raton banned dispensaries, “this does not mean we have to be the last to allow them,” said medical marijuana user Eric Sevell.
Other speakers said the medical marijuana industry is well regulated and there is no evidence that dispensaries cause crime.
Only two people spoke against allowing dispensaries. Glenn Gromann, a former Planning and Zoning Board member, countered that since dispensaries can accept only cash, they are a magnet for crime.
“The bottom line is there is no compelling need to have dispensaries in the city,” he said, because they already are operating in Deerfield Beach, Boynton Beach and in unincorporated areas and many provide delivery service.
City staff had consistently opposed allowing dispensaries. Their chief concern was that the state regulates medical marijuana and dispensaries and gives cities almost no leeway to manage them or restrict how many can open once the decision is made to allow them.
Under state law, dispensaries can be located anywhere zoning laws allow pharmacies, but are not allowed within 500 feet of a school. Pharmacies can’t sell medical marijuana because it is still classified as a controlled substance by the federal government.
At the urging of dispensary operators, council members unanimously agreed to reduce the minimum size of dispensaries from 5,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet, which better reflects the size of existing dispensaries.
They also voted 3-2 that no pharmacy or dispensary will be permitted within 4,000 feet of another dispensary or pharmacy. This would not apply to existing pharmacies.
This decision, combined with state law limitations, will restrict where dispensaries can be located. In the eastern part of the city, one could open along the short section of Palmetto Park Road between the Intracoastal Waterway and State Road A1A.
The other areas available to dispensaries are mostly west of Interstate 95 at the city’s north end, north and south of West Yamato Road, and along Military Trail south of Glades Road.
Deputy Mayor Rodgers, who opposed the 4,000-foot separation requirement, said it would exclude many locations where it would make sense to have dispensaries.
Rodgers also was against allowing dispensaries at this time. He wanted to delay the effective date of the ordinance to June 1, 2021, because of the uncertainty over whether the state or Congress will take action that would affect the city’s ordinance.
The House Judiciary Committee in January approved a bill that legalizes marijuana on the federal level, removing it from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Even if the full House passes the bill, it faces long odds in the Senate.
In Florida, there is strong support for making recreational marijuana use legal. But in January, a group pushing a state constitutional amendment dropped its effort to get the proposal on the 2020 ballot and instead hopes to do so in 2022. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 11 states.
Rodgers’ motion to delay failed on a 3-2 vote.
Thomson and council member Monica Mayotte were the strongest proponents of allowing dispensaries. “This is medicine for people who need it, need it badly, I think,” Thomson said.
Rodgers and O’Rourke were most strongly opposed, in part because of their concerns about unintended consequences.
Both also said they had heard little from residents on the subject, and certainly no groundswell of support.
“It is not a lack of compassion by any means whatsoever,” O’Rourke said. “It is all about the unintended consequences for me.”